As if matters were not difficult enough for Rishi Sunak, there suddenly appears a group of Conservative MPs – including, at least initially, the deputy chairman of the Conservative Party – drawing attention to high levels of immigration and calling for government policy to be tightened. Whatever the intention behind the launch of the New Conservatives, this was not helpful to the Prime Minister.
Immigration is a political opportunity and a political risk for centre-right parties. There is a sizeable proportion of the electorate that will always be concerned about high levels of immigration. Not all of these voters consider themselves to be on the right of politics but they do believe that parties of the centre right are more responsive to their concerns. This is the political opportunity.
In fairness, a political system has to be responsive to public concerns. If the centre right simply ignores the issue, those outside the mainstream may profit. But embracing the issue of immigration brings two political risks. The first is that a party can appear nasty. The second is that it may raise expectations and then fail to deliver.
This brings me back to the New Conservatives, a grouping of 18 Tory MPs – generally from the Red Wall, including Lee Anderson, Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger. Their message is clear: the public expect a Tory government to reduce immigration and, if it fails to do so, the electorate will punish it at the next general election.
Immigration is a less salient issue than it was in 2016, when it was the key issue that delivered a Leave vote in the Brexit referendum. At present the cost-of-living crisis and the NHS matter much more to the electorate. But immigration has risen as a public concern in recent weeks and it is almost certainly a bigger issue in New Conservative MPs’ seats than in the country as a whole.
This does not mean that it is a wise political move for them. Set aside the fact that a focus on immigration will deter some potential Conservative voters (they are not heavily concentrated in the Red Wall). The real problem for the New Conservatives is that they are drawing attention to the Tories’ failure to deliver on their promises.
A criticism that can be made of those calling for lower immigration is that they argue for this in the abstract but fail to set out how they would do it in the specific. In the case of the New Conservatives, that criticism would be unfair. They set out exactly how they would bring immigration numbers down in a 12-point plan. The problem is that once you set out the specific details, it becomes very obvious how difficult – or how unwise – it is to achieve radical reductions in immigration
Let us take two examples. The New Conservatives would cease to allow work visas for carers. We could do this and it would reduce immigration. But it would leave our already fragile social care system in an even more perilous situation (there are already an estimated 165,000 vacancies). Pay care workers more, says Tom Hunt, one of the New Conservative MPs. Fine, but how will we fund that? Higher taxes? Higher care home fees? And are we sure that the labour market will respond quickly? Demand for carers is growing and it is not obvious that it will be easily met by domestic workers. The whole system could collapse.
The New Conservatives also propose stopping overseas students from remaining in the UK for up to two years after graduation and extending the closure of the student dependant route that allows a student’s family members to access the labour market. Overseas students and their families contribute greatly to this country, not least in revenue for our universities (although some of the New Conservatives appear rather sceptical about higher education being widely available).
These are not practical policies and, if this is what it takes to return net migration to 226,000 a year (its 2019 level), it would be better to miss that target than weaken the economy and our public services further.
Political parties can make promises on immigration, whether that is the Tories vowing to reduce net migration to tens of thousands, or New Labour initially predicting that eastern European migration would be just 15,000. We should know by now that reality is more complicated.
This is currently Sunak’s problem. Net migration is at a record high (606,000 last year) and even his chosen objective – reducing the number arriving across the Channel in small boats – is proving troublesome. Voices to the right of the Conservative Party will be only too keen to exploit any sense of betrayal.
A future Labour government will face a similar challenge. The demands of the economy may mean immigration will remain high. In opposition, the Conservatives could easily choose to denounce this. How would Keir Starmer respond?
We need to end the cycle of unrealistic promises followed by cries of betrayal and further unrealistic promises. Immigration policy is complex. It involves trade-offs. Aggressively lowering net migration involves costs that sensible governments do not want to pay. Rather than indulging fantasy policies, our political leaders need to confront them.
[See also: Why Rishi Sunak needs to sack Suella Braverman]