British troops in Iraq. Photo: Getty
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No matter how "punchy", the Chilcot report remains an afterthought

The findings of the long-awaited Chilcot inquiry are reportedly sending shockwaves through Whitehall. When will the Prime Minister start taking it seriously?

In an exclusive report, the Times reveals that draft reports of the Chilcot inquiry "have sent shockwaves through Whitehall".

According to the report, extracts from the long-awaited official inquiry into the Iraq war have spooked key figures who were involved, because it is far more critical and damning than expected. An insider is quoted saying, "it's much more punchy than people thought it was going to be".

The piece also quotes a government whip, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, saying that the consultation of lawyers could postpone the already severely delayed publication of the report until after the general election in May:  “We are all anxious that if it is not published by the end of February it would be inappropriate to publish it during the campaign period.”

The inquiry was announced by Gordon Brown in June 2009, and commenced in November that year. It concluded in February 2011, so we have now been waiting over three and a half years for it to release its findings. David Cameron said in May that he hoped the Chilcot inquiry would be unveiled by the end of this year, but this now looks highly unlikely. He acknowledged this last week, claiming that he did not know when it would come out, and insisting: “It is important in our system these sort of reports are not controlled or timed by the government.”

Although the PM has emphasised the importance of hearing the inquiry's findings, it is clear that the report remains an afterthought behind the scenes. And not just because of the repeated delays and prevarication over when we can expect it to be published.

I hear from a well-placed MP that it was only very shortly before a Westminster Hall debate on the Chilcot inquiry was called in October this year that the Cabinet Office minister for civil society, Rob Wilson MP, discovered that the Chilcot inquiry was even part of his brief. This low priority suggests No 10 not only sees the report as being very far off on the political horizon, but also reveals the lack of significance it lends the inquiry.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Sooner or later, a British university is going to go bankrupt

Theresa May's anti-immigration policies will have a big impact - and no-one is talking about it. 

The most effective way to regenerate somewhere? Build a university there. Of all the bits of the public sector, they have the most beneficial local effects – they create, near-instantly, a constellation of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Don’t forget that the housing crisis in England’s great cities is the jobs crisis everywhere else: universities not only attract students but create graduate employment, both through directly working for the university or servicing its students and staff.

In the United Kingdom, when you look at the renaissance of England’s cities from the 1990s to the present day, universities are often unnoticed and uncelebrated but they are always at the heart of the picture.

And crucial to their funding: the high fees of overseas students. Thanks to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in television and film, the wide spread of English around the world, and the soft power of the BBC, particularly the World Service,  an education at a British university is highly prized around of the world. Add to that the fact that higher education is something that Britain does well and the conditions for financially secure development of regional centres of growth and jobs – supposedly the tentpole of Theresa May’s agenda – are all in place.

But at the Home Office, May did more to stop the flow of foreign students into higher education in Britain than any other minister since the Second World War. Under May, that department did its utmost to reduce the number of overseas students, despite opposition both from BIS, then responsible for higher education, and the Treasury, then supremely powerful under the leadership of George Osborne.

That’s the hidden story in today’s Office of National Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of international students. Even small falls in the number of international students has big repercussions for student funding. Take the University of Hull – one in six students are international students. But remove their contribution in fees and the University’s finances would instantly go from surplus into deficit. At Imperial, international students make up a third of the student population – but contribute 56 per cent of student fee income.

Bluntly – if May continues to reduce student numbers, the end result is going to be a university going bust, with massive knock-on effects, not only for research enterprise but for the local economies of the surrounding area.

And that’s the trajectory under David Cameron, when the Home Office’s instincts faced strong countervailing pressure from a powerful Treasury and a department for Business, Innovation and Skills that for most of his premiership hosted a vocal Liberal Democrat who needed to be mollified. There’s every reason to believe that the Cameron-era trajectory will accelerate, rather than decline, now that May is at the Treasury, the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy doesn’t even have responsibility for higher education anymore. (That’s back at the Department for Education, where the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is a May loyalist.)

We talk about the pressures in the NHS or in care, and those, too, are warning lights in the British state. But watch out too, for a university that needs to be bailed out before long. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.