Before the Scottish courts stole the news cycle with a judgment that his advice to prorogue Parliament was unlawful, today was going to be the day Boris Johnson tried to revive his credentials as “the most liberal Tory Prime Minister for decades“.
Front and centre of this strategy was the news that the Government is tearing up the restrictions that Theresa May imposed on overseas students, who will once again be allowed to remain in the UK and seek work for two years after the conclusion of their qualification.
This will please the higher education sector, which has for years been highlighting that prospective students from countries such as India are avoiding Britain in favour of studying in countries such as Australia with more liberal regimes. Overseas students pay the full commercial cost for their education, so such decisions have an appreciable impact on university balance sheets.
Meanwhile the Government is touting the decision as an illustration of its commitment to creating an open, global Britain, and as a boost to British soft power.
However, it has been criticised in some quarters for creating a potential ‘back door’ into the country. This is because the plans will allow graduates to compete for jobs “at any skill level” – not just the highly-skilled areas such as engineering, science, and technology being talked up by Johnson – and because it applies to graduates “regardless of the quality of their course”.
For now, this doesn’t seem to be biting. It is telling of the change in the political environment since 2016 that the Brexit Party did not seem to be making much fuss about the visa u-turn, whereas five years ago UKIP would have been all over it. There is truth to the claim that public concern was as much about control over, rather than the details of, our immigration policy.
But the Prime Minister ought to be wary. Political circumstances can change, and when they do things which voters might previously have ignored can take on greater significance. It would be most unwise to imagine that Nigel Farage will continue to abstain from weaponising immigration just because he chooses not to do so today.
Ministers should therefore make sure that this policy does not inadvertently create a route which can be exploited to import low-skilled labour. Otherwise they risk undermining the very sense of trust which has given the Government the breathing room to take this sensible step to attract skilled graduates and support our universities, a powerful vector for British influence in the world.