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Brexit voters may not be happy with what immigration ‘control’ looks like

When Priti Patel was chosen as Boris Johnson’s home secretary, liberal opinion was affronted. What possible logic could there be, so it went, in putting one of the Conservative party’s tub-thumpers, and one with a patchy ministerial record, at the helm of Whitehall’s most dysfunctional department?

Simple, one of the prime minister’s aides told me at the time: “You can never be too rightwing on immigration and law and order.” The adviser argued that Team Johnson thought the true centre ground of public opinion on immigration was “way to the right of where Westminster thinks”. Patel’s appointment was a response to that.

Before 2016’s Brexit referendum, immigration caused splitting headaches for mainstream parties. Labour under Ed Miliband and the Tories under David Cameron devoted the earlier part of the last decade to pledging controls, without much will or ability to deliver them. When she arrived at the Home Office in 2019, Patel pushed ahead with a vaunted “points-based” system, inspired by Australia, that she hoped would calm the debate and win it for her side.

But the new approach is not yielding significantly lower immigration, just a different sort. The first year of the new system recorded a significant rise in the numbers of non-EU migrants in to the UK. According to the Home Office, the number of work-related visas rose by a quarter. Lowering the skill and salary requirements needed to come to the UK, which has happened gradually as the policy has been revised over time, has done exactly what you would expect — numbers rose again.

Even though he has long departed from Whitehall, Patel is putting to the test the theory of Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief aide and architect of the Vote Leave campaign. He has argued that handing domestic politicians a say over immigration policy would “drain the poison” from the issue and neutralise the far right: “Once there’s democratic control of immigration policy, immigration will go back to being a second- or third-order issue.”

But what if Brexit voters wanted lower numbers, not just control? Prior to the referendum, this sentiment was widespread. The British Social Attitudes survey reported that 77 per cent of Britons wanted less immigration; over half stated they wanted it reduced by “a lot”. Having control over these movements of people was central to Theresa May and subsequently to Johnson’s Brexit negotiating strategies on exiting the EU; it is one of the chief reasons that continued membership of the single market for the UK became politically impossible.

There are fears in Tory circles that for all Patel’s tough talk, the points-based system is too liberal and may prompt a reckoning with the party’s electoral base, now dominated by Leave voters. Nick Timothy, once a senior Tory aide in the Home Office and Downing Street, reckons the government is “storing up big problems” with public opinion — even though the new barriers to entry to the UK have created labour shortages in several sectors. “We’re seeing the creation of an immigration system that is incredibly liberal, without a plan to deal with the numbers in terms of housing and infrastructure,” he says.

The control versus quantity question speaks to a tension in the Brexit campaign, never addressed. The mainstream Vote Leave gang was run and led by more liberal-leaning figures, but many who voted for Brexit did so for illiberal purposes. Before and during the referendum, Johnson extolled how much he liked migration. Nigel Farage, then leader of the UK Independence party, figurehead of the more populist campaign to leave, focused entirely on driving it down.

This split may come back to haunt the Tories if the issue is adopted by a rightwing challenger party. It is impossible to overestimate the paranoia of senior Conservatives about a Farage comeback. His old party, which has evolved from the Brexit party into Reform UK, has so far struggled to settle on any one issue. Whether Covid passports or climate policy, no one much cares what this party has to say.

If Farage latches on to an issue that splits the right-of -centre vote in England, even just by a few points, Johnson cannot win the next general election. Hence Patel and Johnson pushing ahead with the controversial deal for offshore migration processing in Rwanda. It is no coincidence that Farage has devoted hours of his broadcasting to small boats of migrants crossing from France.

The government has powers to reduce immigration, but has chosen not to for understandable economic reasons. In fact, Johnson talked up more migration on his India trade trip, to deal with the “hundreds of thousands” of skills shortages in the UK. Some Brexit voters may ask, “is this the control we voted for?” Their significant tally of votes might then be up for grabs.

sebastian.payne@ft.com

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