A day on which immigration was the prominent campaign topic has highlighted yet another change from the May era to now. The former Prime Minister clung to the tens of thousands figure more tightly than a Corbynite to the red flag – even when it was obvious it was undeliverable while we had a growing economy and were members of the EU – on the grounds that it was the only way to guarantee credibility on the issue.
But now it has been ditched as a liability. Instead of that specific and totemic pledge, the Conservative policy on immigration has become more vague: there’ll be less of it overall, we want people with particular skills, and whatever we do will be controlled by us.
More vague, but arguably more credible – the very need for the tough-sounding tens of thousands figure was first as a countertone to the more liberal mood and reputation of David Cameron. Latterly it was deployed as what May hoped would be a point of reassurance to Leave voters that a Prime Minister who’d voted Remain understood their concerns. She misjudged that, confusing a desire for control with a desire for toughness even to the point of painfully excessive harshness (remember Amber Rudd announcing that companies should compile lists of foreign employees?).
With a Prime Minister who led the Leave campaign, who resigned in protest at May’s compromises, and who has just battled very publicly against all sorts of Remain forces to get his new deal over the line, however, things look rather different. An OTT pledge is not necessary to build a newly Brexity personal image – ironically, of course, Johnson is personally more liberally disposed on immigration than May. Where she was a Prime Minister more strict on immigration than her Home Secretary, Johnson is less strict on it by inclination than Priti Patel.
One other reason the Conservatives feel comfortable in talking about a more vague immigration policy is that Labour have helpfully adopted a position which the Opposition appear to be desperate not to discuss. As one Government source put it to me recently: “We’re for controlled borders, they’re for open borders, do we need to say more?”
Add in the underlying question, of whether you’d rather have Johnson and Patel in charge of migration policy, or Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott, and you start to see why Labour prefer not to get into a conversation about borders at all.