Alex Morton is Director of Policy at the Centre for Policy Studies, and was a member of David Cameron’s Downing Street Policy Unit.
Whatever you think of the Prime Minister’s deal, one of the central criticisms is deeply unfair. Theresa May has been assailed for prioritising immigration over other issues. But the Brexit vote wasn’t about that, cry her critics. It was about sovereignty and free trade.
In fact, May is right. The evidence is that immigration was a critical part of the Brexit debate – with laws and money next, and trade a distant last.
For instance, the British Social Attitudes Survey found Leavers’ number one priority for Government was reducing immigration and 66 per cent agreed with the argument ‘leaving the EU would make immigration lower’. They found a clear correlation between views on migration and how people voted on Brexit. Ipsos-Mori found in June 2016, just days before the vote, that ‘the number of immigrants coming into Britain’ was the biggest single issue for Leave voters with 52 per cent saying it was a key issue for them. Polling in 2018 found 39 per cent of the public recalled controlling immigration as being key in the 2016 campaign, vs 21 per cent who said that more money for the NHS was. Only one per cent thought new trading opportunities were at the heart of the debate.
Yes, the need for decisions about the UK to be made in the UK also came out top in some surveys, and in some cases, scored ahead of migration (e.g: Lord Ashcroft’s survey). But even here immigration as a separate issue scored very high. In addition, because ‘decision’ encompasses both laws and migration, saying ‘laws’ not ‘decisions’ (which excludes immigration) tended to relegate laws to second place behind migration. For many people, immigration was the most tangible element of decisions being outside the UK’s control and the decision they most wanted back.
In particular, Leave voters were fairly ambivalent about trade and globalisation (see Ashcroft again, where only six per cent thought trade opportunities would be better outside the EU than inside and pro-globalisation voters split 50/50 Leave/Remain but anti-globalisation voters largely backed Leave). Of course, it is not that simple, so for example on trade, given voter focus on cost of living, which CPS polling finds voters’ top concern, it is claimed if we cut tariffs on clothes and food we could reduce overall prices for households by up to eight per cent according to some estimates, which voters would notice. But in terms of being seen to deliver on the 17.4 million votes for Brexit, May is right controlling immigration is clearly critical.
On top of this, the idea that people no longer want to reduce immigration – that Brexit has ‘solved’ the issue – is simply false. Immigration is still very high on YouGov’s list of top issues, consistently polling ahead of the economy. Even during the Windrush scandal earlier this year, polling showed very clearly that attitudes to immigration have not really changed, with YouGov finding very strong support for the ‘hostile environment’ policy, and 63 per cent saying immigration in the last ten years had been too high, and seven in ten wanting reductions (see ).
It is true that there has been a dip in the number of people citing immigration as one of the top issues facing the country since the Brexit vote. But this is due to clear promises made, both by the Leave campaign before the vote and by the Government after it, that Brexit would mean lower migration.
At present, people think we will have more control over immigration after Brexit by 62:32 per cent, and what people want from control is a reduction in numbers. If the Brexit process does not deliver that, and immigration does not fall from its current levels, people will feel angry and misled.
Neither no deal nor EEA option stops us achieving the ‘net tens of thousands’ figure
It is clear that immigration is key to persuading the public Brexit has occurred successfully. Currently, net migration is running at +271,000. Bringing this down to the net ‘tens of thousands’ would, for many people, illustrate that Brexit has been a success. (As for the argument we should ditch the ‘tens of thousands’ target, talking about the real figure of 614,000 not 271,000 people entering the country each year might not exactly reduce calls to limit migration).
If Theresa May’s deal falls, the two options are either No Deal or a version of EEA, as I discussed a fortnight ago. With No Deal, clearly immigration is entirely within the hands of the UK. It might cause other problems, but lack of control over immigration is not one of them.
This leaves the EEA option. This option is more compatible with reducing migration than might be assumed. In the most recent year, up to March 2018, of the 614,000 migrants entering the UK, just 100,000 were EU migrants with a definite job offer, the group that an EEA-style relationship would require us to admit without question. A further 128,000 from the EU fell into other categories – notably students, those looking for work, and the retired.
Since Brexit, the net flow of EU migrants has fallen from +184,000 to just +87,000 already. This group could be reduced further by limiting the number of low value university degrees (which would reduce the number of institutions EEA nationals can study at). Crucially, as an EEA worker, you are not entitled to UK benefits in general other than jobseeker’s allowance for a maximum of six months, during which time strict conditionality tests can apply. After six months, if you cannot find work you will be deported. This ensures that companies have access to the skills they need while addressing public concern about benefit tourism.
But realistically this is all only an option if you take action on non-EU migration. The majority of net migration in the most recent year was from outside the EU, which saw a net +235,000 migrants enter the UK. If we wanted to reduce migration down to the net tens of thousands figure we would continue to need to reduce students (who across the board make up nearly 200,000 migrants – which somewhat destroys the myth we are currently turning away Oxbridge-level physicists) and tighten up ‘chain migration’.
The danger instead is that we decide we should replicate whatever system we agree under an EEA-style relationship to avoid preferring EEA area migrants to non-EEA migrants. This would at best see numbers remain the same and could even increase them. This would be a disaster.
We are in danger of ignoring what Leave and Conservative voters want in order to (fruitlessly) try to win over a fairly small group of voters who are usually neither. If the Conservatives try to go into the next election, whenever it is, claiming to have delivered Brexit but having failed to reduce immigration, and possibly instead increased it, it is very likely that they will lose. The detail around goods and services product regulation is complex. Migration rising or falling is not. Try to picture knocking on doors to say “we heard what the public wanted when they voted Leave, so we increased immigration” and you see how frankly stupid this sounds.
In short, May is right to prioritise immigration. Even if her deal does not pass, the Conservatives need to remember that.