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18 January 2024

Rishi Sunak is pleasing no one on immigration

The Prime Minister is neither satisfying populists nor governing well.

By David Gauke

There are two mutually contradictory views within the Conservative Party about the prominence that immigration should have in its re-election campaign. This is the week in which the disagreement on this issue has been fully exposed to the public.

In the right’s view, immigration has to be front and centre of the Conservative campaign. Legal immigration is too high, illegal immigration (which is how the right sees anyone arriving in a small boat) is too high, and the electorate (especially 2019 Tory voters) feels very strongly about both issues. As a consequence, Reform UK is advancing in the polls (and that is before Nigel Farage announces a comeback) and splitting the right-of-centre vote. The way back for the Tories, this side claims, is to make the next general election all about immigration.

Not so fast, say others. There are many arguments against going heavy on immigration, and not every opponent of that strategy will necessarily agree with all of them. But at least some of these arguments appear to be prevailing within No 10.

For a start, attacking the government’s record on immigration and promising to behave differently in the future cannot be viewed as a failsafe approach. If voters are told that the levels of immigration are a disgrace, they just might hold the party in power for the past 14 years responsible. And if immigration really is the priority, there is a party that will always promise to take a more stringent approach. All the Tories will have done is to have given voters permission to get agitated about their own record. This appears to be what happened in the Netherlands, where the incumbent centre-right government raised the prominence of immigration to the benefit of Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom.

There is then the practical point about the costs of reducing immigration. Which immigrants are not going to be allowed to come? If the answer is foreign students, this raises immediate questions about our university sector. What about care workers? Very well, but how are we going to fill the vacancies in the care sector? We could give care workers more money, but who is going to pay for that? Those most vociferous about the need to reduce immigration are rarely keen to acknowledge the costs of doing so.

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As for stopping the boats, most of the Conservative Party appears to have reached the conclusion that the only policy that really matters is sending a plane filled with migrants to Rwanda. Some on the right argue that this must be done at all costs including, if necessary, defying the authority of the European Court of Human Rights and breaking all manner of international treaty obligations. This, however, is no small matter. It would undermine the Northern Ireland peace process, leave the UK diplomatically isolated, reduce cooperation from other nations over illegal migration and even threaten the Rwanda deal itself (as the Kagame government has signalled). 

When faced with all these points, there are certainly voices close to Rishi Sunak suggesting that immigration is not a political opportunity but a trap. The electorate may lean right on immigration (especially 2019 Tory voters) but that does not make it the winning issue that some assume. Better to shut up about immigration and focus on the economy, Sunak is advised.

This, however, would require a degree of strategic discipline unusual for a party trailing this badly in the polls. On Monday (and the timing was not coincidental), Conservative MPs were reminded of their precarious electoral situation with the publication of a YouGov MRP poll in the Daily Telegraph showing constituency-level results. The Tories, under this scenario, were reduced to just 169 seats. Remarkably, this is better than many polls currently suggest but, as Sam Freedman has pointed out, the position could be even worse than the headline results suggest. 

Based on this poll, no Conservative candidate would win more than 40 per cent of the vote and only 74 more than 35 per cent. A candidate with less than 40 per cent of the vote has to be very fortuitous in the distribution of their opponents’ vote in order to win (only five of the 365 Conservatives elected in 2019 had a vote share below 40 per cent, none below 35 per cent). Anti-Tory tactical voting could yet worsen the Tories’ fate. 

Just as striking as the polling is the interpretation of the results by the Telegraph. The problem, they argue, is that Tory votes have gone to Reform UK. Add the Reform votes to the Tories and Labour loses its majority.  

As YouGov was quick to point out, it is nonsense to pretend that all Reform’s voters would support the Conservatives were the other party not standing. But it is an argument that we will hear both in the run-up to the general election and afterwards. If only Sunak had not gone soft on immigration, the Tories would have kept all those Reform votes, the right will claim in the election post-mortem.

They hope that this will be the argument that will resolve the debate within the Conservative ranks about what sort of party it wants to be. Is it a populist party that chases after the votes of social authoritarians by making big, often undeliverable, promises on issues such as immigration? Or is it a party that faces up to the practicalities of governing well? At present, the party and the Prime Minister are stuck in the middle, incapable of delivering either strategy. As a consequence, they are pleasing no one.

[See also: Tory divisions over Rwanda reflect the wider anti-migrant mood across Europe]

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