BrHExit Watch - You've got a friend in Phil
From despair to the brink of triumph, and back to despair again. It’s become a cliché to say that 'a week is a long time in politics', but on international students’ policy, just a couple of days last week were long enough.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, a well-known advocate of removing students from the net migration target, made something of a stand on the issue by dropping strong hints of a change in policy to the Treasury Select Committee on Wednesday. Hammond may well be aware that Boris Johnson has previously criticised international students’ inclusion as immigrants, and was perhaps trying to drive a wedge between the Brexiteers in the cabinet who have been briefing against him in recent weeks.
With Amber Rudd also revealed to be on the same side of the issue, it was beginning to look like the sector’s great chance. Early on Thursday afternoon, the Guardian’s Rowena Mason reported that the Prime Minister’s deputy spokesperson twice declined to restate Theresa May’s opposition to removing students from the net migration figures, stressing instead that the matter was under review.
And then only a few hours later, Downing Street officially weighed in, making it clear in an unambiguous statement that there was no such review, and no prospect of a change in policy. The Chancellor was made to look foolish and hopes were dashed, once again.
The future of international student recruitment, which is of such massive importance to the sector’s financial well-being and global standing, is now in the hands of what historian Maurice Cowling calls “the high politics of the politicians that matter” - the web of personal relationships and messy compromises at the apex of political power. These relationships are already beginning to strain as Brexit pulls the key players in different directions.
The conservative journalist and Leave supporter Iain Martin has expressed concern about what the episode has revealed about the relationship between Number 10 and Number 11 Downing Street, suggesting that “the government is deep in Chinese whispers and double bluff territory, where tired people who do not yet know how to run the country are making basic mistakes”. Policy on international students is proving to be only one of a growing list of examples of ministers making speculative announcements before being resoundingly slapped down by Downing Street - and so we can probably expect it to happen again.
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