Article 50 may not have been triggered yet but immigrants are already shunning the UK. The number of newcomers fell by 23,000 to 596,000 in the year to last September, with a sharp drop in migrants from the EU8 states (such as Poland and the Czech Republic). Some current residents are trying their luck elsewhere: emigration rose by 26,000 to 323,000. Consequently, net migration has fallen by 49,000 to 273,000, far above the government’s target of “tens of thousands” but the lowest level since June 2014.
The causes of the UK’s reduced attractiveness are not hard to discern. The pound’s depreciation (which makes British wages less competitive), the spectre of Brexit and a rise in hate crimes and xenophobia are likely to be the main deterrents (though numbers from Romania and Bulgaria remain healthy). Ministers have publicly welcomed the figures but many privately acknowledge that they come at a price. The OBR recently forecast that lower migration would cost £6bn a year by 2020-21. As well as reflecting weaker growth, reduced immigration is likely to reinforce it. Migrants pay far more in tax than they claim in benefits, with a net contribution of £7bn a year. An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent.
Earlier this week, David Davis revealed the government’s economic anxieties when he told a press conference in Estonia: “In the hospitality sector, hotels and restaurants, in the social care sector, working in agriculture, it will take time. It will be years and years before we get British citizens to do those jobs. Don’t expect just because we’re changing who makes the decision on the policy, the door will suddenly shut – it won’t.”
But Theresa May, whose efforts to meet the net migration target as Home Secretary were obstructed by the Treasury, is determined to achieve a lasting reduction in immigration. George Osborne, her erstwhile adversary, recently remarked: “The government has chosen – and I respect this decision – not to make the economy the priority.” But in her subsequent interview with the New Statesman, May argued: “It is possible to achieve an outcome which is both a good result for the economy and is a good result for people who want us to control immigration – to be able to set our own rules on the immigration of people coming from the European Union. It is perfectly possible to find an arrangement and a partnership with the EU which does that.”
Much depends on how “good” is defined. The British economy is resilient enough to endure a small reduction in immigration but a dramatic fall would severely affect growth. Not since 1997 has “net migration” been in the “tens of thousands”. As Davis acknowledged, the UK has since become dependent on high immigration. Both the government and voters may only miss migrants when they’re gone.