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The Conservatives cannot get off the immigration hook

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The Conservatives are right. They had no choice. It is neither politically nor socially sustainable for the UK to continue with immigration at the levels seen in the last two years. A glance back at the politics of Brexit or at the resurgent right in the EU should convince anyone of the issue’s corrosive power. But the Tories are also now on a hook from which they cannot escape, which means the country is too. 

Few will weep for those who used immigration as the battering ram for Brexit but proved inept at exercising the control they sought. Net migration rose to 745,000 last year. The increase — driven by one-off influxes from Hong Kong and Ukraine but also by the loss of EU labour — have wrecked Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s strategy of focusing on clandestine entry such as Channel crossings while fretting less over the legal arrivals. 

The UK gains economically and socially from immigration. But ministers have to act — and not merely out of electoral necessity. Britain’s infrastructure struggles to absorb such numbers. Immigration is again a top-three issue for voters and bad actors are exploiting recent tensions, not least over Gaza, to assail multiculturalism. It is the issue of choice for the Reform UK party, whose dog-whistling nativism aligns with a vocal faction of Tory MPs.

Hence this week’s hurried measures (in addition to an earlier crackdown on international students) which will, says the home secretary, shave 300,000 from the annual figure. They focus mainly on stopping immigrant workers from bringing their families. Some moves are sensible, others defensible, and some cruel (most British natives will no longer earn enough to secure a visa for a foreign spouse). None, contrary to the shrillest attacks, is politically extreme, though it is a sign of immense incompetence to have reached this pass.  

It is comforting to think the UK’s electoral system protects it from a Wilders or a Le Pen. But Faragists can still frighten the Tories into aping their policies. Recent years have seen both main parties captured by hardliners. Donald Trump’s revival shows that populists don’t reliably stay down. 

So the poison needs to be drained. But it may be a forlorn hope that these steps, plus the sputtering efforts to salvage the Rwanda plan, can calm the issue — not least because many Tories don’t want it quelled.

Historically, the Tories were a bulwark against the far right, neutering it by appropriating its issues but with a less extreme policy response. But this approach faces fresh challenges. Nativist thinking permeates large parts of the party and its post-Brexit electoral coalition, with many MPs regarding the surge in foreign-born or descended citizens as a danger to social cohesion.

Tory strategists, MPs, academics and pundits want Sunak to lean into the issue of immigration. Even mainstream Tories highlight the fall in “white British” citizens as a proportion of the population to stress the scale of change. Their angst is heightened by the shift in migration from EU nationals to Africans and south-east Asians.

For the hawks no number is low enough, certainly nowhere close to the pre-Brexit level of 300,000. Few who care will be assuaged if the numbers fall from a city the size of Birmingham every two years to a city the size of Nottingham annually. Even as the home secretary was announcing his measures on Monday, backbench MPs were demanding more action. The party will get little credit for taking belated action and the new measures will not be felt in time for the election. This will spur calls for more dramatic measures. The leadership will never satisfy hardliners without becoming them; those urging Sunak to run an “immigration election” will only hasten that process.

But there is a larger hook, namely the economic cost to Britain of restricting migrant labour at a time of high employment. Tories often say employers must end their addiction to cheap labour but the government is one of those employers. The NHS and the care sector rely on low-wage immigrants, and ministers evince little desire to foot the bill for salaries that attract homegrown staff. They still hope to fill gaps with migrants who come without a family, but in a global market for healthcare staff that may prove difficult. Add to this the funding challenge for universities if they enrol fewer, high-paying overseas students. Cutting immigration raises the costs of the state.

Alive to this challenge, ministers are betting on welfare reforms to add 50,000 people to the workforce by 2028-29. Other Tories want to address the falling birth rate. Ideas such as preferential tax treatment for parents and incentives to have more children are gaining ground, though these are expensive and the impact is variable. Cabinet ministers even speak with approval of Hungary, which is spending up to 5 per cent of gross domestic product to bolster its birth rate, although this is wrapped up with its ugly attitudes to ethnic minorities. Self-evidently, however, it will be two decades until such policies could offer a solution.

There is an optimistic scenario in which the Tories detoxify the immigration issue, allowing a reasoned debate on the UK’s economic needs. But party dynamics do not make this outcome likely, in which case they need to prepare the country for higher healthcare costs and tax rises.

Some may see that as a reasonable trade-off but it is a choice those pushing the issue should make sure the voters understand.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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