Yvette Cooper at the Labour leadership GMB hustings. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Yvette Cooper delivers unruffled performance at Press Gallery lunch

The Labour leadership candidate – often criticised for her lack of personality – appeared relaxed and amusing at a lunch for journalists.

Yvette Cooper, who was regarded as the best performer at last night's Labour leadership hustings, again impressed before the Westminster Press Gallery this lunchtime. The shadow home secretary didn't make any policy waves but she was relaxed, amusing and resonated authority and competence (despite a bad cold). 

Cooper devoted a significant section of her address to the Greek crisis, reminding journalists that Ed Balls isn't the only trained economist in her household. The Labour leadership candidate, who, like her husband, won a Kennedy Scholarship to Harvard, warned that the EU and the British government were displaying the same complacency that was shown at the start of the financial crisis. 

"There seems to be a growing view about how to handle Greece that is similar to the kind of view that we saw in the US Treasury over Lehman Brothers bank, where the view seemed to be that we can somehow cut them off, cauterise the problem by letting them go. And we saw what happened - the US Treasury thought that they could do that over Lehman Brothers and in fact it was catastrophic and caused huge instability in the financial markets. So my warning to the government and across Europe is do not do a Lehman Brothers over Greece, do not think that you can simply cauterise a problem without there being huge financial and economic instability. We need a long-term solution to Greece, this has been delayed for too long". She recalled that as an economics journalist at the Independent in the 1990s, she always believed that Greece and Italy should not join the euro. 

On the Labour leadership, Cooper stuck to her strategy of positioning herself as the centrist candidate between Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall. She warned against trying to "rerun the 2015 election" (a swipe at Burnham) and against trying to "rerun previous elections" (a swipe at the Blair-esque Kendall). It is an approach that leaves her well-placed to win second preference votes should either of her rivals drop out.  

But aware of the charge that she has simply defined against other candidates and failed to offer a positive vision, she emphasised the importance of "new ideas" and that Labour was successful, as in 1945, 1964 and 1997, when it owned the future. She frequently referenced the digital revolution and the transformation of the labour market, and the need to treat business as an ally, rather than an enemy.

As one of two female candidates in the race, Cooper also, unsurprisingly, emphasised the potential benefits of making her Labour's first female leader. "David Cameron has a woman problem ... Maybe we should give David Cameron an even bigger woman problem," she said. Many in Labour have long believed that the Prime Minister and whoever succeeds him (most likely Boris Johnson or George Osborne) would find it far harder to dismiss a female leader. While there are obvious cards that the Tories could play against Andy Burnham ("the union man", "Mid-Staffs"), it would be tricker to pin down Cooper. Jokes about Ed Balls would simply appear crude and misogynistic and his enforced exit from parliament means this subject is even more off-limits.

Cooper's biggest obstacle, however, remains her past service in government. As the sole candidate elected in 2010, Kendall is able to argue that only she can offer "a fresh start". But Cooper handled the "baggage" charge well, asserting that "this is a tough job and it needs experience" and adding: "I make no apology for having been the minister who ran a department with a £100bn budget, for having brought in the Future Jobs Fund and for having been the minister who rolled out Sure Start". When asked how she felt about comparisons between herself and Hillary Clinton ("cool"), she again used her experience to her advantage, recalling that she worked on Bill Clinton's campaign in 1992 and sported the slogan "I'm backing Hillary's husband". Asked whether Balls would join her on stage if she won the leadership, she replied that he would not and attacked the "outdated" and "uncomfortable" role of the political spouse. 

"I had already when Ed [Balls] stood last time in the 2010 leadership election ruled out ever joining him on stage as a political wife because I think we should be long beyond the era of expecting any politician to have the political wives standing next to them," she said . "Certainly the Labour Party Conference has always been uncomfortable at the way in which the spouses were expected to play that role ... I think that role in terms of the party conference is an outdated one."

Among Labour MPs, it is increasingly Cooper, not Burnham, who is regarded as the true frontrunner. After her performances in the last 24 hours, the political world at large will be watching her candidacy far more closely. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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