The question of international students and graduates in the UK was already a vexed issue, sitting as it does at the crossroads between the electorally powerful questions of controlling immigration and growing the economy. There are relatively few people who want either zero immigration or zero restrictions on immigration – the scales balancing border control and economic growth are currently teetering around the issue of whether it should be harder or easier for students from abroad to come to the UK and then stay here after graduation.

The debate has now been intensified by becoming the crossroads of the race to be the next Conservative leader, too. Theresa May started it, proposing that all international students should be compelled to leave the UK at the end of their course before applying for a new visa to return if they so wished. It was a bid for the tough-on-immigration vote, and a rare public intervention by a Cabinet minister into the process of compiling the next manifesto.

Perhaps she wasn’t anticipating the strength of opposition to the idea – or perhaps she doesn’t mind as long as she is seen to be on her preferred side of the argument. But the reaction was swift and high profile. Sir James Dyson called the proposal “shortsighted”, arguing that while attracting paying students to British universities was good business, keeping the brightest and best on to work in the UK was good economics. As the closest thing the nation has to an industrial saint, Dyson is hard for a politician to take on.

Apparently emboldened, George Osborne then weighed in – ‘senior officials’ allowed it to be known that he had rejected the Home Secretary’s plan, and that it would not be appearing in the manifesto.

Now Boris has appeared, to kick the proposal as it lies in the dust. The Times reports him endorsing the Chancellor’s decision and emphasising the economic contribution of such graduates to the economy. Notably, ‘Friends of the mayor say that outsiders underestimate the friendship between him and Mr Osborne, despite their rivalry.’

What to read into these goings-on?

  • First, perhaps May feels more stung by the failure to meet the net migration pledge than she has let on. As the longest-serving Home Secretary for half a century, she has plenty of clout and plenty of achievements under her belt (not least the admirable fall in crime and her bold stance on police transparency and accountability), but she knows the political importance of immigration. Sallying forth on the issue of foreign students may have been an attempt to push the missed targets down the news rankings somewhat.
  • Second, the whole to-do shows the absurdity of the current net migration measure. Yes, foreign graduates from British Universities make a sizeable contribution to the net migration figures. But they manifestly aren’t a major contributor to either the social or economic concerns many people have about immigration. They are by definition well-educated, they are disproportionately likely to start their own business, they are paying to be here in the first place (often paying very large sums) and the current policy is that they can’t stay unless they swiftly get a job earning at least £24,000 a year. British Future and Universities UK polling has revealed that the public don’t even think they should be counted in the net migration figures at all – and I’m inclined to agree. If we mean all that stuff about winning the Global Race, then part of it is surely attracting and keeping the world’s best brains.
  • Third, you cannot cleanly separate all questions of migration and growth. As both are crucially important issues at the next election, we need to develop a better, clearer message about where the balance between the two will be struck. Otherwise a senior Tory going public with a tough message about one remains liable to cut across the lines being communicated about the other. Result, chaos and incoherence.
  • Fourth, the race for a leadership which isn’t even available as yet is inevitably going to be an extra layer of complexity for the election. As we saw on Monday at the launch of the report on Labour’s incoherent spending pledges, when the five ministers presenting it were described by one questioner as looking like a hustings, this story has a growing potential to distract from the actual election campaign. People will naturally jostle for position – they’re politicians, after all – but it must not be allowed to derail the campaign that really matters.
  • Fifth, if he’s going to make public interventions in proxy leadership battles, will Boris ever choose to make the running himself? It’s a little safe – not to say a tad unattractive – to pile in once the idea is already eating dirt. Duffing someone up is one thing – putting in the boot after the duffing is over should be beneath him.