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Conservative immigration policy: a tragicomedy in two parts?

Written by Helen Williams.

It’s been a bruising week for Mrs May’s Team. Mocked for her non-appearance at the BBC debates and visibly uncomfortable at press conferences, the Prime Minister should be very clear that what once appeared to be a guaranteed Conservative landslide in the 2017 General Election is now increasingly in danger of becoming a hung parliament.

After a disastrous public response to the social care proposals (deftly dubbed the ‘dementia tax’), Mrs May appeared to completely rebrand her campaign, attempting to shift the focus back to Brexit and immigration. Gone is the prominent slogan ‘Theresa May: strong, stable leadership in the national interest’ (with the words Conservative Party difficult to locate); now it’s ‘Theresa May and the Conservatives: a Brexit deal for a bright future’.

Yet the tragicomedy continues, centred on what has long been the Achilles heel of the Labour Party: immigration. Insiders have become increasingly public in indicating that Mrs May is the sole force behind the continued adherence to the pledge to ‘cut net migration from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands’. A pledge that originated during the Conservatives’ time in opposition as an easy way to win political points against Labour, once in government, several Conservatives in the coalition cabinet were keen to quietly drop the target. In fact, there is growing evidence that the public neither think the Tories will meet the target – nor do they care. What the public want is ‘managed migration’; they’re not so bothered about an arbitrary target.

Prior to the Tories’ 2017 manifesto launch, there were whispers that the target might be dropped. After all, the EU Referendum result guaranteed an eventual end to freedom of movement for EEA citizens, so there was no longer a reason to use the net migration target as a measure of immigration control. Yet Home Secretary Amber Rudd was ‘slapped down’ after saying that the Tories were ‘looking again’ at the net migration pledge; and Culture Secretary Karen Bradley stated that specific numerical targets shouldn’t be the aim. Such public disagreement indicates deep internal divisions within the cabinet. Meanwhile, George Osborne has used his new position as editor at the Evening Standard to launch a series of attacks on Mrs May’s policies, including a scathing criticism of the continued adherence to the net migration target.

But the farce does not end here. As part of her attempts to rebrand and revive her flagging campaign, Mrs May has now returned to the target, committing to its achievement by the end of the next Parliament. Result: a new, very public disagreement with her ministers, with her own Brexit Secretary David Davis backpedalling by labelling the target ‘an ambition’ and refusing to promise to meet a specific target, only hours after Mrs May said the opposite.

Now that the Conservatives appear to be paying more than lip service to the target, media and businesses are growing increasingly vocal in their opposition, warning of widespread skills shortages, and deep damage to the economy.

Brexit is already being felt in net migration figures, with increased departures and lower arrivals in response to the decreasing desirability of living and working in the UK. Some sectors have begun to note clear shortages of qualified workers. This is a result not only of a decrease in workers from other European countries; it is also a result of Britons voting with their feet: around 40% of people leaving the UK in any given year are British citizens (see ONS Figure 3 here).

This is because the net migration figures are a very crude measure and are calculated by subtracting the number of people who left the country from the number of people who arrived, which includes Brits travelling both directions. In fact, as satirists have noted with tongues firmly in their cheeks, the best way to help the government reach its net migration target is for supporters of the policy to leave.

With this act of the migration tragicomedy into its final scenes, it still remains to be confirmed whether this is a tragedy with some light moments or a comedy with some periods of despair.

Helen Williams is an Assistant Professor of Politics at the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Nottingham. Image credit: CC by Jim Mattis/Flickr.

Published inBrexitBritish PoliticsGeneral Election 2017Immigration

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