William Hague unveiling his waxwork at Madame Tussauds in 1997. Photo: Dave Gaywood/AFP/Getty
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You find out who your friends are when you’re following William Hague and Ffion round the States

“Can you tell us who he is? So we know which one to photograph?”

There are many good reasons not to like someone. But sometimes it’s personal.

Once, you see, I was asked to follow William Hague around America. It was back in the mists of time when he was leader of the Tory party and he and his team were to go to the States to learn about this great newfangled idea, “compassionate conservatism”.

His press people cleared my presence on the trip.

I never understand why the Tories don’t just embrace “callous conservatism”. You cannot combine empathy with cold-bloodedness, any more than Hague could make himself lovable with a baseball cap and a blonde wife.

All were very keen that I get to see Ffion up close. Newspapers, even the high-minded ones, have an unhealthy interest in the wives of politicians, whereas I couldn’t care less if they’ve married a waste-paper basket.

So there I was in New York, embarrassed, really. No one in the States had a clue who Hague was. I stood outside a plush hotel as he went to breakfast with Henry Kissinger (Compassion Central) and all the American journalists were interviewing me.

“Can you tell us who he is? So we know which one to photograph?”

It was the same at a school in what used to be called Spanish Harlem. There I saw what compassionate conservatism meant: rows of kids doing science under banners “Sponsored by Estée Lauder”, or English literature “Helped by McDonald’s”. The Puerto Rican girls were excited by the arrival of English people.

“Do you know the Spice Girls?” they asked me.

“No.”

Hague’s advisers attempted that dreadful fake interest in the schoolkids’ work.

The girls did their nails.

Two other journalists arrived. One had missed his flight and had an overstuffed suitcase: Boris Johnson. The other was Michael Gove, who was nothing but charming and helpful to me.

We had to go to Austin, to meet the then governor of Texas, George Dubbya Bush. All these guys were travelling together on some Tory transport. They could have easily let me on, but no, they would not.

One callow boy of 27 would not look at me, or let me near Hague. His disdain was apparent. He and the Tory journalists all got on the prearranged plane but he wouldn’t let me board. As a result, I had to trail around on my own, booking tickets and arriving at places alone in the middle of the night.

The young man who would not speak to me wrote speeches for Hague. They say you’re either on the bus or off the bus: he certainly did not want the likes of me near any bus he was on. I was not one of them. He didn’t even bother with the rudimentary courtesies of the well-born. For the few days he had any kind of power over me, he chose to make my life way more difficult than it needed to be. Making people’s lives more difficult turned out to be his life’s work. His name was Gideon Osborne. 

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 06 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Islamic is Islamic State?

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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