Danny Alexander speaks at the Liberal Democrat conference last year in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Exclusive: Danny Alexander: Lib Dems could be biggest party by 2025

What the Lib Dem minister told a recent parliamentary party away day.

From the oustside, it might appear as if the Lib Dems have few reasons for optimism. Since entering government, the party has lost a third of its members, 1,500 of its councillors, all but one of its MEPs, nine by-election deposits (most recently in Newark) and as much as two-thirds of its previous opinion poll support. The Tories, by contrast, have retained almost all of their 2010 vote share and have consistently exceeded expectations in local elections. As Angela Merkel told David Cameron when he asked her what was it like to lead a coalition government shortly before the 2010 general election: "The little party always gets smashed!"

But with both the Tories and Labour doubtful of winning a majority in 2015 (see Marcus Roberts's piece in tomorrow's NS for more on this), the Lib Dems console themselves with the thought that they will once again act as kingmakers in a "balanced parliament". Some are even more sanguine. In my politics column tomorrow, I reveal that Danny Alexander told a recent parliamentary party away day in Wyboston, Bedfordshire, that the Lib Dems could be the largest party in British politics by 2025. "We were all rolling our eyes, even Clegg's spads," one of those present told me. "He'd really been drinking the Kool-Aid". David Steel's 1981 exhortation to Liberal activists to "Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government" looks modest by comparison.

But while Alexander's ambitions might seem unrealistic for a party that could struggle to win more votes than Ukip in 2015 (and we await his ten-year plan with interest), what can the Lib Dems do to avoid being continually "smashed"? That's the question I try to answer in my column.

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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