Partygate and a government crackdown on overseas students: old stories return anew


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Good morning. Does my time machine work? I just ask because I have woken up to the news that Boris Johnson is facing a police investigation over potential lockdown breaches and there is a government crackdown on international student visas.

These old stories are new again — and they both have political repercussions worth thinking about. More on those in today’s note. Thanks as always for your messages: you can reach us at the address below.

Inside Politics is edited by Georgina Quach. Follow Stephen on Twitter @stephenkb and please send gossip, thoughts and feedback to

Help me — what year is this?!

Boris Johnson has been referred to the police by the cabinet office over fresh claims that he broke lockdown rules while serving as prime minister. His ministerial diary revealed visits by friends to Chequers, the prime minister’s country residence, during the period of coronavirus restrictions. My former colleague Henry Zeffman bagged the scoop for the Times, alongside Steve Swinford and Fiona Hamilton.

Per the Times, the allegations came to light because the cabinet office is funding Johnson’s legal advice as part of the public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic, which is why Johnson’s diary came into their possession and as a result into the hands of the police. The former prime minister has denied wrongdoing.

There are two important things to note here, politically speaking. The first is that it increases the chances that the Commons’ privileges committee will hand Johnson a sanction that exceeds the 10 working days required to trigger a recall petition and a by-election in his Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency.

The second is that it is a reminder to Conservative MPs of just how tired they had become of the scandals and controversies that bedevilled Johnson’s government. (Don’t forget that it was actually a completely different scandal that triggered the ultimate end of Johnson’s premiership.)

All in all, it is a day that boosts Rishi Sunak’s internal standing and further bolsters his position at the top of the Conservative party.

Path of least resistance

One reason why the Conservatives’ net migration target is highly undesirable in my view is that it misshapes government policy, making it more draconian towards the forms of immigration it can easily control.

What drives the UK’s high net migration figures? Labour shortages in industries ranging from healthcare to agriculture. While government could tackle these gaps without increasing the number of people who are allowed to come to the UK, it would require spending a lot of money and time. The flow of refugees stemming from Vladimir Putin’s invasion in Ukraine and the arrival of people with British National (Overseas) status from Hong Kong have also boosted numbers. While the UK government aims to avoid crackdowns by China or attempts to reshape the world’s borders by force, neither of these things are in the control of the UK.

What the government does control is who can — and can’t — come to the UK on a student visa. As a result, whenever the net migration target comes back up in the news, the government responds by introducing new restrictions on student visas. It did so again yesterday. The UK will ban from next January most international students from bringing family members with them.

The big political problem here is that the migration of overseas students to Britain is a) popular and b) essential to the bottom line of universities. It’s a symptom of a broader problem: that what the government does on immigration has become completely divorced from its broader policy aims. If the aim is to run higher education as a successful export industry that educates British students on the side, then we are going to have high levels of net migration every year. If you want to move away from that, you have to make different choices.

But as it is, we do neither: we have a net migration target that is far removed from the rest of the UK’s political aims and that encourages ministers to reach for the comparatively few levers they control directly, even if they involve restricting forms of immigration that voters actually like.

Now try this

Last weekend, at the recommendation of my boss, Alice Fishburn, I went to see Operation Mincemeat, the musical about the second world war operation of the same name.

It’s an absolutely brilliant musical that throughly deserves the glowing review that Sarah Hemming has given it. The production tells the story of the titular operation with wit, verve and an astonishingly versatile cast.

That just five actors bring the musical to life feels like a magic trick, and all of them deserve every possible award. Its run at the Fortune Theatre in London has been extended until mid-August, so there is plenty of time to go and see it. You can get Alice’s round-up of the week’s best commentary and analysis every Saturday by subscribing to our Opinion newsletter, sent Monday to Saturday.

Top stories today

  • Inflation drops | UK inflation fell to 8.7 per cent in April, a smaller fall than the Bank of England expected, raising pressure on the central bank to keep increasing interest rates. Food price inflation remained close to 45-year peaks, at 19.1 per cent in April compared with 19.2 per cent in March. 

  • Reeves embraces Bidenomics | Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves will embrace “Bidenomics” as a template for a Labour government, saying Britain risks being “sidelined” unless it accepts that the rules of the global economy have changed.

  • EU calls time on City clearing | Brussels has rebuffed industry calls to rethink its plan for grabbing lucrative clearing business from the City of London, saying it needs to proceed to ensure robust markets in Europe.

  • Sunak pledges long-term help for Ukraine | Western support for Kyiv will continue “for years”, the UK prime minister has said, in the latest sign that Ukraine’s western allies are prepared to support the country through a long conflict against Russia.

Dominic Raab announces he will resign from politics at the next election © Banx

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