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No, really, Theresa May isn't bluffing: we're heading for a hard Brexit

There is no reason to believe that Britain will remain in the single market or anything like it. 

Theresa May’s big interview yesterday has sent the pound plunging, again.

The odd thing about it is that she said very little that was new, at least as far as Brexit is concerned. She reiterated that for Britain, Brexit means that we will no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice and that the United Kingdom will control its own borders.

Neither are compatible with anything other than exit from both the European Union and the single market – what is popularly called a “hard Brexit”, though May herself rejects the claim.

But one of the British industries that is thriving after the Brexit vote is the cottage industry of analysts who listen to May speak and then conclude that actually she can’t possibly mean it, that these positions are leading to a hard and disastrous Brexit, and that some kind of fudge will be produced.

After all, “control of our borders” could mean anything, couldn’t it? (Or so the argument runs.) We control our borders now, but we’ve chosen to cede a measure of control in order to enjoy the benefits of single market membership. We could achieve the same after Brexit.

There are just two small problems. The first is Theresa May herself. She believes that unless the centre-right is seen to have brought immigration under control, the far-right will do it. And she’s already shown a willingness to put border control before keeping the public finances watertight as far as higher education is concerned, with her racheting up of visa restrictions put universities under increasing financial pressure.

The second problem is called the Conservative Party. Let me be plain: a Tory Prime Minister who attempted to sell the idea that Britain’s single market membership consisted of us “controlling our borders” as we could leave at any time is not going to remain Prime Minister for very long.  A Conservative leader who brings back a deal that involves the European Court of Justice setting British regulations will be out on their ear faster than you can say “John Redwood”.

If it wasn’t clear enough already: Britain is heading for the hardest of exits. 

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

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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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