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.

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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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