Cameron and Boris have sent Britain hurtling towards the EU exit

In a dramatic shift, both the PM and the Mayor now speak of EU withdrawal as a reasonable option.

When Michael Gove declared earlier this year that Britain should be prepared to leave the EU if Brussels refuses to return major powers to Westminster, his comments were viewed as extraordinary. But his words have now been all but echoed by the country's two most senior Conservatives: Boris Johnson and David Cameron.

Asked on Sunday on The Andrew Marr Show whether Britain should be prepared to walk away from the EU if it can't secure the concessions it wants, Johnson replied: "That is correct,  that's absolutely correct ... I mean I don't think it would be the end of the world. Don’t forget that 15 years ago the entire CBI, British Industry, the City, everybody was prophesying that there’d be gigantic mutant rats with two or three eyes swarming out of the gutters, the sewers, to gnaw the faces of the remaining British bankers because we didn’t go into the euro."

Yesterday in the Commons, mindful of the evolving threat from UKIP, David Cameron said that withdrawal from the EU was "imaginable".

"We are in charge of own destiny, we can make our own choices."

There we have it. EU withdrawal is not something that no sensible person should countenance but one of a menu of plausible policy options. In November, Angela Merkel declared: "I cannot imagine Britain not being part of Europe." Cameron has made it clear that he can. Having conceded as much, it will now be significantly harder for him to persuade his MPs and the public that they should not vote in favour of withdrawal if and when a referendum is held.

When he finally makes his speech on Europe in mid-January, Cameron will announce that a Conservative government would hold a referendum offering voters a choice between a looser relationship and none at all, an effective in/out plebiscite. The Prime Minister's hope is that the concessions he will extract from Brussels in areas such as social policy and justice, will convince his party that the benefits of membership outweigh the costs. But it is doubtful whether Barrasso and co. will play ball. As Nick Clegg declared in his recent speech on Europe, "It is wishful thinking to suggest we could effectively give ourselves a free pass to undercut the Single Market, only to then renegotiate our way back in to the laws that suit us." 

He rightly added: "And let’s be honest: many of the people who advocate repatriation are the same people who want us out of Europe – full stop." If Cameron wants to prevent them winning the debate, he needs to make an unambiguous and positive case for EU membership. So long as he is either unwilling or unable to do so, Britain will continue to hurtle towards the exit.

David Cameron said that UK withdrawal from the EU was "imaginable". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.