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The problem isn't Eurosceptic Conservatives – it's Theresa May's lack of courage

The Prime Minister can secure the deal she wants, provided she is willing to annoy her own party. 

Nice economy you’ve got there, shame if anything happened to it. The European Research Group – a well-organised bloc of ultra-Brexiteer Conservative MPs – is circulating a letter demanding that Britain’s Brexit deal must satisfy the following requirements: no payments to the European Union after we leave, that any transition arrangement must have an end date, and that the United Kingdom must be free to begin negotiating its own trade deals even during the period of transition.

The latter two aren’t that big of a deal: the British government is already privileging the right to pursue its own trade deals as early as possible in its negotiations with the EU27, and there is no appetite on either side for an unlimited transition period.

The problem for the government is that red line over money. As far as leverage goes, it is all one way in the EU-UK talks. Although both sides would suffer economic damage if no deal is reached, the damage is asymmetric: the risk is considerably higher for the United Kingdom than the European Union. It’s like colliding into a monster truck when you’re in a Morris Minor – the monster truck’s driver isn’t going to be happy about it, but ultimately the Morris Minor is getting written off.

The UK’s biggest area of leverage is over money. Britain is a net contributor to the European Union so can secure a greater level of access to the single market that way. And put simply, there is no way that Britain will secure a transition period without also agreeing some measure of continuing payments.

The good news for Theresa May is that she has a series of helping hands she can call against her own backbenchers: they’re called “Labour”, “the Liberal Democrats”, “the SNP”, “Plaid Cymru” and “Caroline Lucas”.

As Parliament has ratified Article 50, passed May’s Queen Speech and thus lost control of its ability to directly influence the government’s negotiations, when the final Brexit deal comes before the House of Commons, the option they will be voting on will be “Theresa May’s Brexit deal or no deal”. As I’ve written on several occasions, no deal is a great deal worse than a bad deal. No deal means, at best, exit on World Trade Organisation terms, no deal to allow British airplanes to fly to the European Union or the United States, chaos at borders and an immediate and hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

This all has one massive upside for May: while there are many Conservative MPs who don’t accept this to be true, the opposition parties all know it to be the case. May will always be able to count on enough MPs from the parties of the centre and left being unwilling to make their own constituents’ lives drastically worse.

But that would require her to pursue a Brexit deal that wasn’t focused on keeping her government on the road –  one that saw getting the best deal as more important than preventing May being removed by her own backbenchers. The difficulty is that Theresa May displayed precious little desire to pick a fight with her own party before she threw away their first parliamentary majority in 23 years and she has even less of one now. 

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

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The price of accessing higher education

Should young people from low income backgrounds abandon higher education, or do they need more support to access it? 

The determination of over 400,000 young people to go into higher education (HE) every year, despite England having the most expensive HE system in the world, and particularly the determination of over 20,000 young people from low income backgrounds to progress to HE should be celebrated. Regrettably, there are many in the media and politics that are keen to argue that we have too many students and HE is not worth the time or expense.

These views stem partly from the result of high levels of student debt, and changing graduate employment markets appearing to diminish the payoff from a degree. It is not just economics though; it is partly a product of a generational gap. Older graduates appear to find it hard to come to terms with more people, and people from dissimilar backgrounds to theirs, getting degrees.  Such unease is personified by Frank Field, a veteran of many great causes, using statistics showing over 20 per cent of graduates early in their working lives are earning less than apprentices to make a case against HE participation. In fact, the same statistics show that for the vast majority a degree makes a better investment than an apprenticeship. This is exactly what the majority of young people believe. Not only does it make a better financial investment, it is also the route into careers that young people want to pursue for reasons other than money.

This failure of older "generations" (mainly politics and media graduates) to connect with young people’s ambitions has now, via Labour's surprising near win in June, propelled the question of student finance back into the spotlight. The balance between state and individual investment in higher education is suddenly up for debate again. It is time, however, for a much wider discussion than one only focussed on the cost of HE. We must start by recognising the worth and value of HE, especially in the context of a labour market where the nature of many future jobs is being rendered increasingly uncertain by technology. The twisting of the facts to continually question the worth of HE by many older graduates does most damage not to the allegedly over-paid Vice Chancellors, but the futures of the very groups that they purport to be most concerned for: those from low income groups most at risk from an uncertain future labour market.

While the attacks on HE are ongoing, the majority of parents from higher income backgrounds are quietly going to greater and greater lengths to secure the futures of their children – recent research from the Sutton Trust showed that in London nearly half of all pupils have received private tuition. It is naive in the extreme to suggest that they are doing this so their children can progress into anything other than higher education. It is fundamental that we try and close the social background gap in HE participation if we wish to see a labour market in which better jobs, regardless of their definition, are more equally distributed across the population. Doing this requires a national discussion that is not constrained by cost, but also looks at what schools, higher education providers and employers can do to target support at young people from low income backgrounds, and the relative contributions that universities, newer HE providers and further education colleges should make. The higher education problem is not too many students; it is too few from the millions of families on average incomes and below.

Dr. Graeme Atherton is the Director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON). NEON are partnering with the New Statesman to deliver a fringe event at this year's Conservative party conference: ‘Sustainable Access: the Future of Higher Education in Britain’ on the Monday 2nd October 2017 from 16:30-17:30pm.