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7 September 2016updated 13 May 2023 8:48am

Theresa May still believes in the net migration target. How will she meet it?

The Prime Minister will have to squeeze immigration from within the EU and outside of it to achieve her ambition. 

By George Eaton

Samuel Beckett advised those who fail to “try again” and “fail better”. The Conservatives’ immigration policy has long reflected this mantra. Since 2010, the party has aimed to reduce net migration to “tens of thousands” a year – a target that has been continually missed. Net migration currently stands at 327,000, only 9,000 below its peak of March 2015.

Throughout the Cameron era, Tory ministers spoke privately of the folly of a target subject to factors – EU immigration and UK emigration – beyond their control. Others argued that reducing net migration came at an unacceptably high economic price. “Sometimes, I think only Theresa [May] and I actually believe in our immigration policy,” David Cameron complained to his cabinet. The then home secretary was undermined by colleagues who opposed her efforts to reduce student visas and work permits.

Despite May’s record, some hoped that her arrival in Downing Street would end the net migration target. Her “tough” reputation, a Tory MP told me, could enable a “Nixon goes to China” moment. The new Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, agreed, stating that migration should be reduced to “sustainable levels”. She was seconded by Boris Johnson, who said his colleague was “entirely right to be careful about committing to numbers” because the government did “not want to be in a position where we are disappointing people again”.

Yet rather than retreating, the Prime Minister has doubled down. “In her view, a sustainable level does mean tens of thousands,” a spokeswoman told me. For May, the EU referendum result necessitates greater control of immigration. There is no democratic justification, she believes, for maintaining free movement in its present form.

The Leave campaign won with the promise of an “Australian-style points system” – an idea that proved popular in focus groups. But during her first G20 summit, in China, May rejected this approach. “A points-based system will not work and is not an option,” a spokesman said.

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May’s decision was less surprising than some suggested. Points-based systems, which use criteria such as skills and qualifications, are complex to design and do not invariably lead to reduced immigration. Australia’s “fortress” reputation largely derives from its unflinching asylum policy. Twenty eight per cent of its population were born overseas – double the British rate – and 13 per cent of those who arrived under the points system in 2013 were unemployed. As May noted: “People come in automatically if they just meet the criteria.” For all its stringent rhetoric, the Leave campaign never set a formal migration target. 

Rather than a points-based system, May’s allies suggest that she will seek to limit the free movement of non-workers. This could mean a ban on EU migrants entering the UK without a job offer. She argued for this while still home ­secretary. “When it was first enshrined, free movement meant the freedom to move to a job, not the freedom to cross borders to look for work or claim benefits,” she wrote in the Sunday Times in August 2015. “Yet last year, four out of ten EU migrants – 63,000 people – came here with no definite job offer whatsoever.”

This stance has been met with approval from both Leavers and Remainers. In his first despatch box appearance as Brexit secretary, David Davis declared that the PM ­believes in a “results-based system”.

Mark Field, MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, who backed Remain, told me: “The single most important element for those who voted Leave was to be able to take a level of control back of our borders . . . If we are to have any access to the single market or the retaining of some passporting rights [for financial services], which the City feels is very important, that has to be combined with some restrictions on free movement.”

Some Tory ministers believe that the populist insurgency across Europe will ease the path to a favourable Brexit deal for the UK. In Germany, the anti-immigration Alternative für Deutschland party finished ahead of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats in regional elections in her home state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern on 4 September. In France, the Front National’s Marine Le Pen remains likely to make the final round of next year’s presidential election. Other Tories, however, suggest that these disruptive forces will only encourage the EU to drive a hard bargain. The lesson of Cameron’s renegotiation, they argue, is that the EU will always put its interests first.

But an agreement that ends free movement (while preserving single market access) would not ensure the net migration target is met. At present, non-EU immigration (282,000) exceeds that from the EU (268,000) – as it has done for decades.

For some, this is proof that the target should be scrapped. It is the quality, not the quantity, of migration that counts. “The notion of everything being driven by day-to-day figures, that’s the concern,” Field told me. “We need to get a deal that’s sustainable for decades, rather than one that is driven by a quarterly analysis.” The liberal conservative group Bright Blue has similarly called for the abolition of the target, denouncing it as “arbitrary and indiscriminate”.

But May regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow.

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the “tens of thousands” since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term “BRICS” had not even been coined. If May translates her rhetoric into action, both the UK’s economy and its labour force will become less globalised.

By 2020, when she has pledged to hold the next ­general election, the government is likely to have failed to meet its migration target for a full decade. The question for Theresa May is what success would look like – and how to get there.

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This article appears in the 07 Sep 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Three Brexiteers