As Tim Montgomerie notes in today’s Times, the first majority Conservative Government in almost twenty years has had a charmed first few weeks.
Politics being what it is, that can’t continue forever. Events conspire, and human beings fumble, and so political trouble brews.
Tim identifies the iceberg in the Government’s path as the forthcoming welfare cuts – but, while the binoculars of the political lookouts have been focussed on that threat, another jagged lump of ice has floated in and torn into the hull: immigration.
There can be few more perilous topics for an administration. It is a well-known fact that Theresa May is now the longest-serving Home Secretary in half a century: many of her predecessors were forced out of office due to the British state’s ongoing inability to establish a clear, popular and functioning immigration policy. Even when there aren’t scandals or crises (illegal immigrants lost into the underworld, foreign criminals not deported by accident and so on), the system itself remains politically toxic: either you are responsible for open borders, “floods”, “swarms” and so on, or you are responsible for draconian restraints on a combination of the world’s brightest and the world’s most sympathy-inducing people.
Unusually, this Government and its half-Tory predecessor has ended up being held responsible both for open borders and for excessive restrictions. The ‘tens of thousands’ target for net immigration was never achievable while we remain a member of the EU, so headlines inevitably arrive pointing out their failure to meet it. At the same time, the desire to fulfil that target without affecting our EU membership has led to stricter and stricter clampdowns on migrants coming from outside the EU – including unwise restrictions on those valuable international students who contribute their money and brains to UK Plc.
On top of these problems, a crisis has now arrived. Just as Italy has effectively passed on the Mediterranean migrant issue by allowing new arrivals to pass into France, the French are merrily turning a blind eye in the hope that the people involved will now cross the Channel into Britain. That is a dereliction of their duty, and not the act of a good neighbour, but merely raging against Paris won’t solve it (plus, with a renegotiation to attempt, Cameron and Osborne are evidently not in the mood to rub other EU governments up the wrong way too much).
Missing the net migration target is an ongoing problem, which inflicts political damage, but it is one the British people are wearily accustomed to. The electorate shouldn’t have to resign themselves to the realisation that all Governments will fail them on immigration, but they do. The political harm done is large but relatively slow to build. (This is emphatically not an argument to neglect the issue – just because people have come to expect failure does not mean Governments should live down to those expectations.)
What voters will not resign themselves to is the kind of crisis being played out in Calais – their holidays ruined, their businesses disrupted and the border of their country turning out to be a wire fence full of holes. They demand a swift resolution – rightly. Heaven help the Government that fails to deliver one.