Harriet Harman arrives at the Oxford Media Convention on February 26, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Harman shows Clegg no mercy

Labour's deputy leader's all-out assault on the Lib Dems' record showed that she believes the party can't afford to go soft on the yellows.

With David Cameron away in Israel, it was left to Nick Clegg and Harriet Harman to duel it out at today's PMQs. Harman, who has long urged Labour to maintain an aggressive stance towards the Lib Dems and to avoid any hint of coalition, seized the opportunity to attack Clegg over three of the issues that have done most to alienate his party's left: the NHS reforms (most pertinently Jeremy Hunt's "hospital closure clause"), the bedroom tax (opposed by party president Tim Farron) and the abolition of the 50p tax rate.

In response, Clegg turned his guns on Labour's record in government. It was Labour, he declared, that "spent £250m on sweetheart deals for the private sector", that left too many people on council house waiting lists, and that kept the top rate of tax at 40p (as opposed to the current 45p) for all but one month of its time in office. He branded them "the party of 40p, sweetheart deals in the NHS, the party of Fred Goodwin, and the party against apprenticeships."

The problem with this line of attack is the extent to which Ed Miliband has distanced Labour from its past. He has declared that the last government got it wrong on banking, on housing, on tax and on privatisation. Given this, Clegg's charges largely fell flat. In choosing to attack Labour from the left, he also failed to even attempt to justify the rightwards direction of the coalition.

None of Harman's lines were particularly powerful or original. After Clegg's paean to Britain in his spring conference speech she declared: "doesn’t he realise he might love Britain, but Britain does not love him back?" and ended: "They used to talk about two parties coming together in the national interest; now they’re two parties bound together by mutual terror of the electorate."

But her strategy was a smart one. In order to win a majority in 2015, Labour needs to focus on retaining the support of the 25 per cent plus of 2010 Lib Dem voters who have defected (a swing larger than the cumulative increase in the Conservative vote between 1997 and 2010). The best way to do this is to continually remind those voters of the Conservative policies Clegg's party has enabled in government (the NHS reforms, the bedroom tax, the abolition of the 50p rate) and of the Lib Dems' rightwards drift, which alienate those who viewed them as a left-wing alternative to Labour. Today, she emphatically achieved that objective.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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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