Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. UK Politics
25 April 2016

The Leave campaign will struggle to win by playing the immigration card

For most voters, the economy trumps migration as the defining issue. 

By George Eaton

If you’re losing an argument, change the subject. After being thrashed last week on economic territory (by a grand coalition of George Osborne, Mark Carney and Barack Obama), the EU Leave campaign has followed this advice. In an article for his former parish, the Times, Michael Gove warned of an immigration “free-for-all” if the UK voted to remain, contending that five applicant states – Turkey, Albania, Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro – pose a “direct and serious threat” to living standards and public services (though Britain could veto the entry of each). On the Today programme, his fellow Brexiter Iain Duncan Smith declared: “The reality is that we have to accept people, even criminals.” You could call it “Project Fear”. 

Britain’s high immigration rate is undeniably of concern to many voters. The boast that EU withdrawal would exempt the UK from free movement (though Norway and Switzerland show it may not) is perhaps the best card the Brexiters have to play. But it may not deliver victory. The Remain campaign speaks of a “plateau” beyond which Leave cannot advance. There are millions of people whose priority is reducing immigration – just not enough for the outers to win. The issue is to them what the NHS was to Ed Miliband’s Labour – a strategic comfort blanket. 

A recent ComRes poll found that the economy led migration by 47-23 per cent as the defining subject for the electorate. That Theresa May, who has long spoken of her desire to curb immigration, has backed Remain is a demonstration that more is at stake than reducing newcomers. Her absence deprived the Leave side of the executive authority it needed to make the reverse argument. The 2015 general election, which saw the Tories win a majority by emphasising the economy and downplaying immigration, is a measure of the challenge facing the EU’s opponents. 

The more the Brexiters play the migration card, the greater the risk that they animate their core voters while alienating others. It was for this reason that Vote Leave resolved to run an optimistic campaign, non-centred on immigration. Gove’s rhetorical escalation shows that they are struggling to abide by this vow. 

In raising the salience of immigration, Leave is playing to its strengths. Until it is able to neutralise its weaknesses, that will remain a displacement activity. 

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy