Why are Tories still making silly promises on immigration?

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Good morning. Traditionally, immigration is an area of Conservative strength, electorally speaking. But in the past decade, it has become much trickier territory for them. Can Rishi Sunak’s pledge to reduce net migration get them out of the hole? I doubt it, but here are some thoughts on something that might.

What do you think? Send me an email to the address below.


Inside Politics is edited by Georgina Quach. Follow Stephen on Twitter @stephenkb and please send gossip, thoughts and feedback to [email protected].


Three challenges for the Conservatives

The Tories have three problems as far as immigration is concerned. The first is that more people trust Labour on migration than the Conservatives. Here’s the relevant chart and data from Ipsos MORI, taken November 4-8 (before the announcement of a new deal with France on Channel crossings):

Chart showing Labour are more trusted than the Conservatives to have the right policies on immigration, asylum seekers and on handling migrants crossing the Channel

This chart probably underestimates the Conservative government’s political vulnerability on the issue, as a much larger number of people say they trust neither party or answer “don’t know” when pollsters ask who they trust on immigration. If Nigel Farage decides to return to active politics — a real possibility — then the Tory party position could get much, much worse.

The private argument you hear from a lot of Conservatives is that while they are not going to manage to reduce net immigration to the UK by the time of the next election, voters think that at least the Conservatives want to reduce immigration, while they hold no such view about Labour. Maybe, but all the available evidence suggests this is not true.

The second problem is that, it is one thing for voters not to trust you on a “low salience” issue — that is, something that they don’t think is all that important. But immigration is currently the number three issue in Ipsos MORI’s long-running issues index, behind only the economy and inflation.

The IpsosMori long-running issues index showing immigration is ranked the third most important issue facing Britain today

Now: the good news for the Conservative party is that in historic terms, concern about immigration remains relatively low, which is remarkable given that net migration to the UK is at a record high of more than half a million in the year to June 2022. Ipsos MORI has charted the change in degree of concern over time:

The bad news is the Conservative party’s third problem, which is that Jeremy Hunt’s Autumn Statement means real-terms cuts for the Home Office.

I don’t think it takes a genius to work out why the politics of immigration — once such a reliable source of electoral joy for the Tory party — has turned so drastically against them. We have had more than a decade of unachievable policy promises, plenty of language about how the UK faces an “invasion” or some other highly charged phrase, and yet visibly immigration to the UK not only remains high but is higher now than it has ever been.

Rishi Sunak has pledged to get net migration down — a silly promise when David Cameron made it and an even sillier one now. Ultimately the UK government cannot control the various forces that lead to the UK’s “net” migration figure.

One reason why the UK has a record-breaking high this year is the large number of refugees who have come here from Hong Kong, Ukraine and Afghanistan, in addition to smaller numbers from Syria and Eritrea. If there is a fresh wave of repression in Hong Kong, is Sunak really going to say “sorry, we’re full?” With his parliamentary party? If Ukraine’s military successes go into reverse in 2023, is he going to declare that the UK is closed until 2024? Of course he’s not.

The other factors driving the UK’s record migration levels — a post-Covid bounce in numbers, the number of vacancies in the UK labour market — are similarly outside any government’s control. And many of the levers the state can pull directly have undesirable effects politically. A British government can put the squeeze on UK universities’ ability to recruit international students, but given that many universities are dependent on the flow of foreign students’ tuition fees to keep themselves solvent, that is a costly policy. The UK could hire less freely from abroad to fill vacancies in the NHS and other public services, but that would have direct costs for the ability to deliver those state provisions.

You can decrease the number of vacancies that the UK economy has to fill from abroad by doing a better job on skills training and further education — an area where the UK currently lags behind many of its peers, as Bethan Staton reports. You could improve this by adequately funding the government’s life-long learning entitlement and by reversing the cuts to further education — that again costs money and in the short-term I’m not convinced that you can run those improved services without high immigration either.

We’ve seen the consequences of multiple decades of promises that politicians cannot keep on immigration: high levels of public distrust, a very hard Brexit and the destruction of many of the politicians who made those impossible promises.

How could Sunak avoid that fate for himself? For a start, he and his government could stop talking about net migration and talk instead about things his government can actually control. Ultimately the only way to become a country without any illegal immigrants arriving on our shores, is to become a country which people try to illegally immigrate from. Increasing the speed of processing asylum claims is one clear and deliverable way his party could show that it is achieving something on this issue and not just generating bad headlines and polls for itself.

Now try this

I continue not to have watched a moment of the World Cup. Not, if I’m being honest, because I have decided to boycott it or anything like that. Having a World Cup in the middle of the club football season, when I can still get my fix by watching Arsenal Women even though the men’s team has been taken from me, just doesn’t have the same appeal as having it when the season is over.

However, one thing I am enjoying is the parliamentary press gallery’s 10 Teams tournament, quite the best way to follow international soccer. It’s a tremendously fun game that is run by Paul Waugh, and which now has a very swish website courtesy of his son, so now anyone who wants to can play at home.

I can confirm that I am currently the highest ranked political journalist called “Stephen Bush” in the internal press gallery league.

However you spend it, have a wonderful weekend.

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