Plans for foreign students to essentially be chucked out of the country after their course finishes has been met with condemnation from all sides. That’s because it’s a silly policy. Supporters of the idea say that 70,000 students from outside the EU hang around to work after they get their degrees, not seeing that this is actually one, a minuscule figure and two, having a group of highly educated, highly skilled people filling in necessary gaps in the economy isn’t actually a bad thing to have happen.
But I’m not going to rail about the naff-ness of the policy any longer – you get the idea. What really interests me are the machinations inside the Conservative Party around the plan, and what it shows about both the race to succeed Cameron as leader by the leading players in the race to do so and the problems that the immigration debate causes for the Tories.
The whole thing is the brainchild of Theresa May, who surely did it to bolster her grassroots cred ahead of what might be a fast approaching leadership contest. There seems to be some behind the scenes jostling between George Osborne and May, directly related to succession concerns. Osborne has said nothing directly about May’s latest proposal, but it does seem to contradict ideas the Chancellor has floated in the recent past like relaxing visa restrictions for Chinese students who want to study in the UK. It would be interesting if Osborne resisted May’s idea (all the more so if it was done publicly), but I doubt he will. The Tories will continue being both pro-immigrant sometimes and anti-immigrant most of the time. So part neo-liberal, part Little Englander. They think they can get away with this; all evidence points to the contrary.
If Osborne did publicly oppose Theresa May’s plans to expel foreign students, post graduation, he could lay down the gauntlet as the pro-business candidate in the next leadership contest. It would be slightly unfair on May in some respects, but politics is often pretty unfair. But George won’t do this; fear of the nationalist far-right of the Conservative Party is a common trait in modern day Tory highfliers.
So the Tories stumble onwards, trying to satisfy the free marketeers and the UKIP-leaning, pleasing neither. As the era of big tent politics fades from view, the Tories struggle to come to terms with the fact that making everyone happy at once isn’t possible. What lies ahead of them on their current path is more of people not feeling sure about them but not quite rejecting them either; more hung parliaments, more arguments between the liberals and the nationalists about why they can’t win elections, neither side and both sides being correct simultaneously.