Since the resignation of Robert Jenrick, the UK government has divided the role of immigration minister into two. Tom Pursglove will now serve as minister for “legal migration and delivery” and Michael Tomlinson as minister for “illegal migration”.
These changes expose how crucial it is now for the Conservatives to separate the two – legal and illegal migration – in voters’ minds. In a press conference explaining his new measures to push through the Rwanda deportation scheme, Rishi Sunak opened by emphasising that his own immigrant parents “came here legally”.
As the record net migration figure of 750,000 for 2022 shows, this Conservative administration is relying on high immigration to keep the economy ticking over. The new Home Secretary James Cleverly’s recent visa reforms don’t substantially change that, for reasons I reported earlier this week.
Ministers need high migration through formal visa routes, and that’s not going to change any time soon. They have therefore invested a great deal more political capital in reducing “illegal” migration – which is through irregular routes, like Channel crossings. If they focus their rhetoric and energy (and some would say cruelty) on this issue, so the calculation goes, the public will assume they’re doing something to control immigration in general.
New Labour tried the same thing – taking an outspoken anti-asylum stance while welcoming in the most economic migrants since the Second World War, mainly from eastern Europe. Tony Blair’s government banned asylum seekers from working, swapped their benefits for “essentials” vouchers, and stopped them sending their children to mainstream schools. Much like today’s government, Labour ministers drew a contrast between legitimate and “bogus” claims, and accused people of being “asylum cheats” and “playing the system”.
It is an irony that the Conservative government, led by a Brexiteer Prime Minister and Home Secretary, leans so heavily now on the difference between legal and irregular migrants. In the EU referendum campaign eliding the two was politically expedient. The refugee crisis was high on the news agenda, and some pro-Brexit campaigners and right-wing tabloids suggested that leaving the EU would end the kind of immigration characterised by people fleeing conflict zones like Syria, Yemen and Iraq for western Europe. Nigel Farage’s infamous “Breaking Point” poster was the prime example.
In reality, it was white Europeans who would be cut from the workforce, and so it has turned out. In last year’s record net migration figures non-EU migrants made up the bulk of new workers coming into the country. No amount of tinkering with job titles or rhetorical diversions will hide this from a public constantly reminded of the immigration figures – illegal or otherwise.
[See also: The Tory right is at war with reality]