One good thing about Brexit: the end of “honest conversations” about immigration

Even Theresa May won’t promise lower immigration now. 

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Will immigration be significantly lower after Brexit? That’s the question that Theresa May couldn't answer yesterday.

Here’s her response to Andrew Neil on the BBC in full:

“Well, I think what we will see – we will see a difference in the number of people coming in, but I was Home Secretary for six years and when you look at immigration you constantly have to look at this issue because there are so many variables, so many different things that can happen in the world that affect the numbers of people trying to come here to the UK. What we will be able to do, as a result of leaving the EU, is to have control of our borders, is to set those rules for people coming from outside – from inside the European Union into the UK. We haven’t been able to do that so we’ll be able to have control on those numbers, set the rules for that, as we’ve been able to set the rules for others in the past.”

That’s a very longwinded way of saying “No”, despite making her name as the Home Secretary who tightened visa requirements for the rest of the world in a doomed attempt to meet David Cameron’s target, and despite saying in the same interview that “obviously we want to see migration, net migration coming down”.

Regular readers will know that I am not optimistic about the Brexit process, but one unalloyed good is that time is running out for May and the rest of the “we need an honest conversation about immigration” brigade. For years they’ve been able to talk tough about people’s “very real concerns” about migration while hiding behind the fact that being in the European Union has meant that Britain has ceded control over what was, by the time of the Brexit vote, the source of more than half of the immigration to Britain.

Now anyone talking about people’s “real concerns” or the need to “get numbers down” will have to outline what they plan to actually do to get numbers down or address those “real concerns”. As George notes, the shift is already underway in the Conservative Cabinet, where most ministers now have to lobby for greater migration to keep their budgets in control, instead of nodding to anti-immigrant sentiment in the Conservative grassroots. Now May, whose anti-immigration policies and speeches in times past are responsible for her popularity among Conservative activists, has implicitly joined them.

Because reducing immigration comes at a real cost. Britain doesn’t produce enough young people to care for its elderly population. If you reduce immigration to the “tens of thousands”, as May notionally wants to do, now that Britain is leaving the European Union, you can do that but the bad news is that large numbers of people – let’s face it, large numbers of women in the main – will have to give up fulltime work to care for their elderly relatives.

The secret truth about the supposedly superior “Australian-style points system” is that a) Australia admits more immigrants than Britain does and b) they continually have to tweak what the definition of a “skilled” profession is because like most advanced economies they have an ageing population and require both skilled and unskilled migration.

Now that really is the beginning of a honest conversation about immigration.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.