They got Brexit done. So why are Britain’s Tories still mad at immigration? – POLITICS
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LONDON — There’s a terrible habit that Britain’s Tories can’t shake. It keeps coming back to bite them – and this week Prime Minister Rishi Sunak could become the latest victim.
David Cameron started the trend with his fateful vow in the 2010 election to reduce net migration to less than 100,000 people a year. Each subsequent Conservative Prime Minister has made his own version of his broken promise. None came close to fulfilling what they had promised.
Brexit was supposed to solve the problem by ending the free movement of people from Europe and returning control of Britain’s borders to the government. Yet more than three years after Britain left the EU, the numbers are only growing.
Net migration to the UK hit a record high of 504,000 in the year to June 2022, according to the Office for National Statistics, well above the dizzying heights under Cameron that sparked for the first time the clamor for a referendum on the EU. And new statistics released on Thursday will show it has soared further in the second half of 2022 – possibly topping 700,000 or more by the end of the year.
While some conservative voices suggest it’s time to move on from fixating on absolute numbers, others in Sunak’s party fear another big headline rise could further alienate very pro-Brexit voters they are trying to hug before next year’s election.
“It’s absolutely insane,” backbench MP Adam Holloway told right-wing TV channel GB News this week. “Who would think that a Conservative government was presiding over effectively uncontrolled immigration?
Some experts say that after Brexit, the whole subject of immigration is less and less important in British politics.
Rob Ford, professor of political science at the University of Manchester, cites data suggesting that “across a very wide range of measures, people are more positive about the economic and social impacts of immigration today than they were in the years before the EU referendum.” He says last year was the first time a poll found a majority of people thought immigration levels should stay there. where they are now or increase further.
There are also several caveats to the latest migration statistics that, in theory, should lessen their impact on the general public.
The new total will include 174,200 Ukrainian refugees and 160,700 Hong Kongers fleeing a crackdown in China – groups entering the country via special visa programs that enjoy considerable public support.
It will also include a large number of foreign students – they numbered 485,758 last year – a group that some prominent conservatives suggest should not be counted in migration statistics at all since, in the words of the former minister Kit Malthouse, they “pay us megabucks” and are “largely self-sufficient”.
Broader demographic shifts are also starting to change the conversation about immigration. The types of voters who tend to view immigration more positively – college graduates and people with an immigrant background – are increasing as a proportion of the population. Younger generations now reaching voting age are also generally less affected.
And Brexit itself, along with the subsequent introduction of a points-based immigration system, may have helped to further alleviate public concern, giving a vague impression that the problem had been “ treaty”.
But that in turn means any jump in the headlines – coupled with the immense pressure felt by key services, including housing and the National Health Service – has the potential to send immigration skyrocketing back into the EU. political agenda, which will create serious problems for Sunak.
Rising immigration is fueling a sense of “betrayal” among Brexiteer voters, says Rachel Wolf, co-author of the 2019 Conservative manifesto and founder of polling consultancy Public First.
“We claim that ‘taking back control’ is something completely abstract,” she says of the famous Vote Leave slogan from 2016, “but a lot of it was about taking back control of immigration. That’s what a lot of people voted for. »
One of the problems inherent in the Brexit campaign was that its elite-level supporters “actually wanted a kind of high-immigration, low-regulation, free-market state”, she notes. “But that’s not what voters wanted.”
Boris Johnson was one of those Brexiteer leaders supremely indifferent to higher immigration, as evidenced by his decision to opt for a more liberal approach than that envisioned by his predecessor, Theresa May, in the form of the points system Australian style.
Nick Timothy, May’s former chief of staff, claimed in a column this week that Johnson never believed his own campaign promise to lower overall numbers. He points out that every Conservative government since 2010 has come to power making promises on net migration and then doing the exact opposite.
Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s communications chief, is from a different Tory tradition than Timothy, but agrees the party has hurt itself with constant promises on immigration figures.
“That’s what happens when you have people who are only interested in campaigning,” he says, “and not so much in having a sensible discussion about how to govern.”
This is a concern for Conservative MPs from all political walks of life. Although Sunak supporters demand a sense of perspective, they don’t deny that it creates a lack of credibility when the party says one thing and does another.
A minister, requesting anonymity to speak candidly, cited the large number of current migrants linked to Ukraine and Hong Kong, but admitted he was still not eager to discuss the issue with his constituents. “That’s not great,” he sighed.
What is the next step ?
While Sunak has attempted to act this week, via a crackdown on international student dependents, he is well aware that drastically reducing the numbers would require a more radical shift in the UK economy.
“Going from a world in which we are quite dependent on immigration to a world in which we are not would probably be quite a painful process, in which we would suddenly have certain industries and retail outlets unable to succeed” , says Paul Johnson, director. from the think tank of the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
As well as truckers, fruit pickers and hospitality workers, a large proportion of migrant visas issued by Britain last year were for essential health and social care workers. It is far from clear what alternative the government might be able to devise.
Yet, much like his predecessors, Sunak has now held himself hostage to fortune, telling reporters last week that he wants immigration to return to pre-pandemic levels – and thus trusting a strong lower numbers next year.
His MPs are watching closely and will step up the pressure if the engagement looks set to break down. Home Secretary Suella Braverman – already trying to position herself as the next Tory leader – has made her personal feelings clear, establishing herself as a hero for backbench MPs who want to see the numbers go down.
A former cabinet minister confirmed a schism was emerging, saying: “I strongly agree with Suella on this.”
For now, getting out of their eternal campaign mode on immigration seems to be beyond the reach of the Conservatives.