Why would Rishi Sunak blow a bag full of his political capital on bringing back into government someone who only resigned over a breach of the ministerial code last week?
Some put it down to a political deal reached at the weekend as the leadership contest was coming to a close, but one way to understand the otherwise baffling reappointment of Suella Braverman as Home Secretary is via the “political realignment” theory.
Kent politics academic Matt Goodwin argues that over the past couple of decades, Western states have seen a change in their citizens’ political loyalties rooted in their education, age and cultural values.
In other words, he argues that the Conservative Party is no longer the party of the rich while the Labour Party is no longer the party of the poor. It’s also a shift that was reflected in the Brexit vote.
There are differences of opinion here – some regard Goodwin’s 2020 report on the 2019 general election that lays out the theory as wishful thinking fused with selective evidence, others wonder whether the “alignment” is merely temporary.
But Goodwin’s view on Sunak’s cabinet appointments does offer a plausible theory as to why Sunak – who feels like he’s on the left of the Conservatives to many onlookers – has confounded those feelings:
If you voted for Boris Johnson & the Conservatives in 2019 you should feel happy today. You have a pro-Brexit PM who is prioritising the 2019 manifesto, a serious mind on Levelling Up, a no nonsense Home Sec on migration and a Cabinet with lots of Leavers.
Former schools advisor Sam Freedman puts the Johnson coalition slightly differently, like the band getting back together but without its charismatic lead singer:
Sunak’s deal with the right is “let me do the economics and you can have your culture war / immigration headlines”. Problem is if liberal votes hate the authoritarianism and authoritarians hate the economics… Or to put it another way this is Boris Johnson’s government with a bit more focus but the focus is austerity and tax rises.
Who knows whether having Sunak rather than Johnson at the helm can keep the coalition together – not least because despite furlough, Sunak has appeared to be more interested in balancing the books than his former boss.
But the big question in all of this is immigration generally, and international students specifically.
The fabled 90 minute row of last week between Braverman and Truss – that ended in the former’s latter resignation – was reportedly over a statement on immigration of which an iteration was said to include more concrete versions of the balloon floats we saw at Conservative party conference.
The story goes that the Truss “go for growth” plan involved liberalising the immigration system, with Braverman arguing that manifesto pledges conversely meant a duty to get numbers down.
Unluckily for higher education, the secfor is right in the middle of a short period where the line on the graph will be pointing sharply up before it levels back off, because we are – less by design, more by circumstance – moving to a new funding model.
By definition if you start regarding EU students as international, set a target for international recruitment couched in a “global britain” strategy of buccaneering trade deals, introduce a post-study work visa offer to support it, cut the unit of resource in real terms and start recruiting from countries where students are more likely to bring dependents into the country when studying, you increase your “steady state” student population.
But we’re not yet in a position where we can quantify it, know when the line will level off (enabling an accurate punt at quantifying where net migration will settle at), or understand any other long-term impacts or unintended consequences.
So the big question that hangs – after less than a week of several sector figures feeling some relief – is whether the economic benefit arguments of the shift in the model will win out in government, or whether the supposed social negatives and the ERG deal will win the day.
Or put another way – if the ERG wing of the party feels like it needs it and its voters cheering up, does buccaneering Brexit Britain selling its HE outside of Europe win, or does Braverman’s “they don’t need to bring their family in” collection of dog whistles win?
My instinct, by the way, is that two of the things the sector is missing are a) a clear sense of where the “net” lines on the graph will level out at (both as a country and in specific areas) and b) sufficient emphasis on arguments against the “they take up all the seats on my bus” complaints that get crystallised into culture wars.
In other words, fans of “free” marketisation and the power of avoiding planning or caps don’t yet seem able to argue cogently when someone dares suggest that there could be downsides, unintended consequences or even dangers in the pace of expansion.
I’d personally like global free movement – but in the political real world, when Keir Starmer is popping onto LBC to say that Labour would only have a “slightly different” approach, committing only to welcoming “really good” students, seeking to win an argument mainly on economics while avoiding the argument over social impacts doesn’t seem especially smart.