The Lib Dems might have moved on from Rennard, but the public haven't

Ask any "ordinary" person what the Lib Dems have been up to in recent weeks and they'll mention the scandal.

Being a mere Lib Dem activist, rather than a professional politician, means I actually have friends who don’t "do" politics – you know, folk who spend their Saturdays doing things other than getting their hands stuck in dodgy letterboxes when out leafleting, writing furious letters to the local paper or haranguing the council via enraged blog posts.

Yesterday was one of those rare occasions when I managed to raise my head from my hands long enough see one such friend. But guess what. He wanted to talk politics. So what great matter of state did he want to discuss? The economy? The debate over the top rate of tax? Crisis in the health service? Michael Gove? Nope. He wanted to talk Rennard. And more precisely, how on earth a professional political organisation made such a 24 carat balls up of the whole thing.

Raising this topic is not going to make me many friends in Great George Street, now it's been kicked into the long grass and is the subject of yet another investigation. But in many ways of course, that’s the problem. Sure the party leadership may want the world to move on – after all, the main media storm was three weeks ago. But I’m afraid the public haven’t moved along. 

Ask any "ordinary" person what the Lib Dems have been up to in recent weeks, and you won’t find anyone talking about campaigns on mental health initiatives, Danny Alexander saying no to cutting the top rate of tax, or David Laws sticking it Michael Gove. No, their overriding concern is why can’t the party sort out the sort of human resources issue that would have been resolved one way or another in a matter of days in any average-sized business. And – unlike other inquiries we’re currently holding– this isn’t an issue anyone is likely to forget about.

So while I suspect the leadership may be quietly congratulating themselves that the Rennard affair is no longer gracing the front pages (and cursing me for raising it again), it’s still the thing most front of mind for the wider electorate.

We may wish it weren’t so and we can media manage all we like, but better to grasp the nettle, hold the inquiry quickly, accept its findings, act appropriately and then move on. Because if you ask the public they’ll tell you – it’s not going away. And I’d quite like them to be thinking of some of the other things we’re doing – but which, while this festers on, we'll get no credit for.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Chris Rennard with Ming Campbell at the Liberal Democrat conference in 2006. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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