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George Osborne: Theresa May “doesn't have the votes” to deliver hard Brexit

The Evening Standard editor was asked whether he believed a Jeremy Corbyn government or “hard Brexit” would be worse for the UK. 

Outside of parliament, George Osborne has been an excoriating critic of Jeremy Corbyn and "hard Brexit". When the Evening Standard editor returned to Westminster for a Press Gallery lunch, I asked him which he believed would be worse for the UK: a Corbyn government or hard Brexit? 

Osborne replied: "I'm a Conservative voter and I am hopeful that, long before we get to the general election, a Conservative government will be advocating a softer form of Brexit. I used to be a bit of an amateur chief whip and I don't think they've got the votes."

It's striking, then, that Osborne didn't simply state that a Corbyn government would always be worse. But his faith that a "hard Brexit" (defined as UK withdrawal from the single market and the customs union) can be avoided depends on Tory Remainers showing greater bravery than they have to date (Theresa May has yet to lose a Brexit-related vote). Though the majority of MPs (and Conservatives) voted Remain, most currently maintain that the Leave vote can only be respected by leaving the single market and ending free movement. 

The former Chancellor also said of his party: "If we present ourselves to the country as anti-modern, anti-immigrant, anti-urban, anti-metropolitan, then huge sections of the country will be anti-us. We saw that frankly at the last general election and we may see it in the London elections in a few months’ time. Change in a progressive country is constant, and it’s pointless resisting it."

And he argued of Labour: "For all his undoubted ability to connect to younger and more disillusioned voters, Jeremy Corbyn has become the biggest obstacle to Labour winning a general election. If the party was led by a more moderate social democrat of even middling ability, they would be 20 points ahead in the polls and on the cusp of power. Instead the Labour movement is consumed by an internal battle for its soul."

Osborne also refused to rule out a return to parliament or a London mayoral bid. Finally, when asked if he regretted remarking that he would not rest until May was “chopped up in bags in my freezer”, he quipped that “it’s taught me a few things about editorial conference meetings." 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What the university staff strike reveals about our broken higher education system

The marketisation of our universities is facing its biggest opposition yet.

The biggest industrial strike ever by academic staff in Britain's universities has begun.

National newspapers are running panicked headlines about what may happen if the strike lasts: “University strike puts final exams in danger”, warns The Times. “University strikes could hit exams and graduation ceremonies”, says the Guardian. But as well as affecting the education of students who are heavily in debt, the strikes will hit academics with very different levels of job security, and university establishments at a time when higher education is on the political agenda. 

The University and College Union voted for strike action last month over a failure to reach an agreement with Universities UK (UUK), the body which represents of the Vice Chancellors of every university in the country, over changes to academics' pension plans.

The pension scheme at the heart of the conflict, the Universities Superannuation Scheme, currently has over 400,000 participants. UUK have stated that the pension scheme currently has a £6.1bn deficit and that the cost of future benefits has increased by one third since 2014. They are proposing a switch from a direct benefit pension scheme (fixed, guaranteed pension payments) to a direct contribution scheme (reliant on stock markets) to maintain the scheme's sustainability.

However, many academics argue the deficit is overstated, and is instead a cynical attempt to reduce the universities' pension liabilties. 

Older and more senior academics who have already spent several decades paying into the system will be less affected by the changes, as contributions will be protected under the old scheme until 2019. 

UCU however allege that this change will result in an average yearly £10,000 loss in staff members' pensions. Academics at 61 universities, including the likes of Oxbridge, UCL, Imperial College London, Cardiff University and the University of Edinburgh will be striking for 14 days. 

The strikes begin on Thursday, and yet no-one seems to know what will happen. FAQs provided by universities to students all appear to have a similar theme: Academic disruption will be minimised, but if you have a complaint, please email us. 

16 percent of academic staff at these universities will be on strike (because most academics aren't a part of a union) but lectures and seminars have still been cancelled. It is still unclear for students whether they will be examined on subjects that they will miss. 

But for the most part, students appear to support the academics. Mark Crawford, a Postgraduate Sabbatical Officer at UCL (the biggest university in the country to strike) says he has been pleasantly surprised by the number of students who have messaged asking him how they can help. 

Perhaps this is due to the pains some academics have gone to minimise the disruption their students will face. Some lecturers have made presentations available online, and have amendeded their reading lists. One academic at King's College London, KCL, has even rearranged her seminars off campus. 

Yet this feeling of goodwill may disappear when reality kicks in. Robert Adderly, a second year Law student at KCL, and a campaigner for the student group provocatively titled “Students Against Strikes” says he’s unsure how supportive students will be once the action actually begins. 

Adderly, while sympathetic to the concerns of the academics does not believe striking is the most effective way to negotiate with Universities UK. He goes on to say that he believes “neither side is willing to compromise” and says that the “only people losing out are students.”

He also says he believes a lot of students “haven’t assessed how they really feel about the strikes” and that the “longer it goes on, the more students who will get angry”. 

Adderly's thoughts are backed by a poll conducted by Trendence UK, a market research company, which found that 38 per cent of students supported their academics on strike, compred to 38 per cent who did not.

Several academics have spoken to the New Statesman off the record about feelings of uneasiness around the strike, arguing that there is a better, less disruptive way of resolving the pension debate. Others are unsure about the leadership of UCU and believe striking will only lead to a build up of work later. 

Professor Andrew Pomiankowski at UCL emailed his students saying while he supported the strike, he would continue conducting his classes this week. He later told the New Statesman “I have a lot of sympathy with the reasons for the strike - the loss of provision of pensions, especially for the younger members of staff. Talking is the only way of resolving this problem. However, I don’t feel that I should disrupt teaching of students. That’s a step too far.”

The strikes go to the heart of the debate about the marketisation of university. Even students who support the strike are in conflict with one another. Notably, students who support the strikes are unhappy with campaigns such as Adderly’s which are also demanding universities compensate them for lost teaching hours. Crawford says your “first instinct shouldn’t be how much am I losing? It should be how much is our staff losing.”

On the other hand, Adderly argues we shouldn’t pretend the marketisation of university hasn’t already happened, saying “It’s here. It’s happening. We are now consumers.” 

Though it appears unlikely that universities will refund students, these strikes are highlighting how our attitudes to higher education have changed in a short space of time, and causing some to ask if this is the future we want for British higher education.