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What Tories can learn from Theresa May’s mistakes on immigration

8 July 2019

8:00 AM

8 July 2019

8:00 AM

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias is often taught to schoolchildren, who read it as a warning about the fragility of human power. Conservatives should study it now and ensure they take an opportunity to learn from Theresa May’s mistakes on immigration.

If there was one issue that helped May become, for a short time, a figure of “cold command” over her party, it was immigration. As home secretary and then Prime Minister, she was the senior figure at the top of the Conservative party who consistently took the hardest line on the issue. By the mid-point of the 2010-2015 coalition government, David Cameron would privately concede that all of his ministerial colleagues no longer believed in the Conservatives’ “tens of thousands” target, with the solitary exception of May.

After succeeding Cameron in No 10, May stuck to that pledge even though she was once again alone in Cabinet in thinking it wise.

She also framed her entire Brexit strategy around her conviction that most of the electorate would always demand the hardest line possible on migration: the starting premise for the “red lines” she set out in the autumn of 2016 was that freedom of movement must end, a condition that meant Britain must leave the Single Market.

From a short-term political perspective, May’s judgement was correct and her rigidity rewarded: she did, after all, become Prime Minister and enjoy a short period of significant popularity.

That all now lies in ruins. May is leaving office, voters largely regarding her a failure even on the issue that made her. As ICM polling for British Future sets out today, trust in May over immigration eroded sharply: barely 18 per cent now believe she handled the issue well.

May and her approach to immigration are crumbling into dust, but the Conservatives now have a chance to build a more sustainable and sensible migration policy on the lone and level sands she leaves behind.

To do that though, they need to draw two lessons from May’s experience.

The first is that opinion on immigration is more subtle and varied than May calculated. She acted as if there was – and always would be – a solid majority of the electorate who were strongly in favour of more restrictive policy and rhetoric.

May’s mistakes were several here. She mistook the vocal and committed minority – a fifth of the electorate, say – who are strongly opposed to immigration for a majority. In that, she overlooked the softer opinions of those in the middle of this debate, whose worries about immigration have been easing since the early years of this decade (around the time Cameron began ramping up his rhetoric against immigration in fear of Nigel Farage’s Ukip, as it happens). She also failed to see that the salience of immigration can go down as well as up. Voters used to see it as one of the most important issues in politics. Now they don’t.

Exactly why remains somewhat unclear: are concerns relaxing because voters now believe the UK has greater scope to control migration? Or has a fuller political debate about the role of immigration in modern Britain’s economy and society simply changed some minds? In this context, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that May was wrong to build her platform on the salience of anti-immigration sentiment as if it was solid rock.

The second lesson is about honesty in political conversation. The “tens of thousands” target was a case-study of dishonesty and misperception. Conjured up because it sounded clear and simple and like it would satisfy what was imagined to be public appetite on the migration issue, almost none of those who promoted it actually believed it was either a sensible or a practical policy. Even May, its last lonely defender, never truly pressed to actually achieve it: even while free movement was in place, she could have dramatically restricted non-EU migration in an effort to drive net migration below that arbitrary level of 100,000. That she did not suggests that even she didn’t believe it was worth paying the economic, social and perhaps diplomatic price that would be required to deliver on that promise.

Instead of an honest conversation with voters about the merits and costs of immigration, and the consequences and practicality of different migration policies, May oversaw a prolonged exercise in over-promising and under-delivering. It is not hard to trace a line between that record on immigration and the return to the political fore of Nigel Farage.

Perhaps May’s successors will be tempted to frame their migration policies with Farage and his supporters in mind, in much the same way she did. But a Conservative party that doubled down on anti-immigration messaging would risk repelling the degree-educated, urban and socially liberal Remain-leaning voters it needs to build the sort of electoral coalition that is a necessary condition of a sustainable Commons majority.

On the other side of the ledger, the Conservatives would be taking a greater gamble, entering an unwinnable auction of promises with Faragist populism.

For the recent history of Conservative politics over immigration shows that feeding the beast merely deepens its appetite. Cameron steadily ramped up his promises and rhetoric over immigration from around 2012, hoping to see off Farage. That strategy culminated in an EU referendum that followed on from an attempt to renegotiate Britain’s EU membership, in which Cameron set out what he saw as fundamental problems over free movement, then demonstrated his inability to solve them.

The Conservative path to sustainable politics and policy over immigration will not be as seductively easy as conjuring up more doomed promises. But can that be a worse choice than repeating the mistakes of Cameron and May and hoping for different results?

There are signs that the party is willing to learn. The “tens of thousands” pledge will not long outlast May, though what the overall aim of migration policy will be under the next Conservative leader remains unclear.

None of this is to argue that the Conservatives should simply embrace a starkly liberal view of migration and ignore those voters who remain opposed to it. That would also play into Farage’s hands. If belief in British “control” at the border helps allay concerns about migration as a whole, delivering meaningful control – both in and out – should be a priority. For those voters who are concerned about what they believe to be immigration’s impacts on public services – especially local ones – more accurate data on population levels and flows would be a good start to establishing a framework of policy that commands confidence. Might this mean considering some form of ID card scheme, or at least a German- style local registration regime? Such things may be necessary to win permission from the electorate for an immigration system that keeps Britain relatively open to the world.

There is also a much better Conservative story to be told about immigrants who come to work and settle in the UK. A Conservative party truly intent on celebrating patriotism and hard work would seek to open a new national conversation about citizenship, celebrating industrious immigrants as the best of British. Wrap them in the flag and make them yours. There are lessons to be learned here from places including Canada, but Scotland isn’t a bad place to start your studies: Ruth Davidson can help.

Talk more about the fact that not everyone who is in the UK is here with permission, and instead of simply chasing headlines with more doomed promises and ugly slogans (remember May’s “Go Home or Face Arrest” vans?), explain the options to voters, and their costs: more of the “hostile environment” that caused such public concern? The alternatives to seeking the involuntary return of illegal migrants are either to permit them to stay or to seek more voluntary returns, perhaps by greater use of financial support and incentives. All of these options have costs and limitations and will require addressing voters and their concerns over immigration much more frankly than May ever did.

It is even possible that immigration could provide a route back to a better Conservative relationship with business, which also needs a better story to tell on this issue. Both the party and the leaders of British industry should learn from the coalition of US state and municipal leaders and business figures who make up the New American Economy project, which details – and celebrates – the contribution migrants make on a local level. (The most hard-headed Conservatives might be interested to learn that the project’s founders include Rupert Murdoch.) An approach should be explored where business that sees economic advantage in an open immigration policy shares more of those gains with the UK workforce. That could be in the form of more support for skills and education services, with a regional dimension. More immigration means more apprenticeships, perhaps?

The most important thing May’s successors should take from the ruins of her premiership is a determination not to repeat her fundamental misjudgement over immigration, either in duplicate or in reverse. She thought concern about immigration was rock solid, a fixture at the top of the public’s priority list. She was wrong, but it would be equally wrong to assume that immigration’s current absence from the agenda is a permanent situation. There are many reasons for immigration to rise up that list again.

Will ending free movement – which meant the UK could effectively ignore the immigration status of millions of foreign nationals – push questions about illegal immigration back into the public conversation? Should Britain strike trade deals with a country such as India, what degree of control over Indian immigration will it give up in return? Outside some of the EU’s systems of control, how will Britain deal with the next great wave of migration from sub-Saharan Africa? Will an ageing population make it vital to recruit even more young labour from abroad?

Voters will always have questions over immigration. Conservatives need new answers.

This essay appears in the report Immigration after May: What should the new Prime Minister change? 


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