One of the most trite and overused catchphrases of the 2010 General Election was the charge that David Cameron often lobbed at then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
“You failed to fix the roof while the sun was shining!” He used to boom, usually to a chorus of cheers from his backbenchers in the Commons.
Never one to miss a PR-opportunity, Mr Cameron and some of his most senior Cabinet minister are now lining up to do something similar: fiddle the figures while Labour’s lost-at-sea. Ok, it’s not as catchy, but it has become evident over the last few days that the government intends to lean on the independent Office for National Statistics to remove students from the UK’s net migration figures.
I see the establishment is moving to take students OUT of the net migration target. Once again fiddling the figures.
— Raheem Kassam (@RaheemKassam) September 11, 2015
And this isn’t a value judgement on what they’re doing. There are arguments for and against it. The against wins out slightly because other countries’ figures use the same measure, and staying in line with them helps create context for what immigration in the UK continues to look like compared to others.
Yet the timing gives the move a seedy sort of feeling that hasn’t gone unnoticed. Writing at ConHome, former MP Paul Goodman observed:
“…consider the political context. Immigration is at a record high. The Government has announced that it will accept 20,000 Syrian refugees. Is this really the right time to try to take students, when net student immigration appears to be about 150,000 a year – some half of the total figure – out of the statistics, thus stoking claims of “fiddling the figures”?
“Theresa May is absolutely right to believe not – and, of course, there is no mandate for it in the Conservative Manifesto of only four months ago. But you can almost hear the case made by Ministers now – George Osborne, Philip Hammond and Sajid Javid, according to the Times’s report. Do it now while Labour is in chaos! Act now while there’s no opposition!”
Foreign secretary has already pleaded with the government to exclude student figures from the migration numbers, so they could be legitimately excepted from the squeeze. Channel 4 News reports he wrote to the Prime Minister: “From a foreign policy point of view, Britain’s role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It’s an issue that’s consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts.”
So this is probably just another cynical ploy by Cameron and his cronies. And perhaps a better analogy would be another from the last Labour government: this is a good time for the Conservative Party to bury bad news. But even if Labour won’t hold them to account, you can bet we and the British public will.