Yesterday Priti Patel set out a new vision for immigration in a speech for Bright Blue, the liberal conservative think tank. It was timed alongside the publication of the Government’s New plan for immigration: legal migration and border control strategy statement, and covered an enormous amount of ground, from the UK’s new points-based immigration system to the British National (Overseas) visas. Ministers have completely overhauled the system – to make it “simpler”, “fair”, “secure”, and, as they see it, more just.
The part of Patel’s speech that caused the most controversy was around the Government’s Introduction of Electronic Travel Authorisations, which will be used to create a “fully digital border” by 2025. Already there are concerns about how much this will cost visitors to the UK, and Labour has said that there are “serious questions” about how it will be delivered (never mind that EU countries plan to implement this too next year). But the speech was ultimately designed to reassure the public that the Government is “taking back control” of a system Patel described as “broken” – and echoed the pledges made in the Brexit referendum.
Will it do the trick in terms of pleasing Conservative voters? It certainly showed a government that is ambitious in its aims on immigration, and Patel was characteristically commanding in her delivery. However, some of the tough talk on “control” in the speech could actually be undermined by the policies that have been introduced by Johnson’s government.
To understand how this could happen, one first of all needs to look at public sentiment on immigration. Although it has become less of a pertinent issue to voters since Brexit, polls suggest that there’s still a sizable part of the population who want immigration levels reduced. In 2019, for instance, the Migration Observatory found that 44 per cent of respondents on its survey wanted this (39 per cent wanted it to stay the same), and Ipsos MORI found the same for 49 per cent of people it asked in November 2020 (compared to 12 per cent wanting an increase). This percentage has gone up and down over the years, and could go in either direction very quickly.
At the same time, Johnson has quietly shifted to a more “permissive migration policy”, as I have previously written for ConservativeHome. Soon after becoming Prime Minister, he scrapped several of Theresa May’s immigration policies – such as the net migration target, the £30,000 minimum salary threshold for immigrants and the Government also increased the amount of time that overseas students can stay once they graduate in the UK. These policies, in turn, could increase immigration levels rapidly.
There are lots of reasons that could explain why Johnson abandoned May’s targets. For one, he has said he believes the Australian point-system will help the Government to control numbers. There was also a large drop in net migration over the course of the pandemic – which will worry the Government. But the most obvious explanation is Johnson’s personal philosophy, as he is more liberal on immigration than his predecessor, and thinks numbers are arbitrary.
The issue here is that the Government has not always got it right in its calculations of how many people will move to the UK. One newspaper recently found, for instance, that the Home Office underestimated (by over a million) the number of EU citizens who would apply for settled status here post-Brexit. In short, it did not appear to know how many had been living here in the years before.
On a similar, but more delicate note, the Government has offered British citizenship to nearly five and a half million Hong Kongers. Leaving aside the reason for this decision – it is the UK’s moral obligation to help – there has been little discussion over what would happen if most of those eligible arrived. As Paul Goodman has written for this site, the Home Office estimates that nearly “300,000 Hong Kongers will take up the new visa route over the next five years”, but nothing is certain – and no backbencher wants to be the one who asks “what if the estimate is wrong?”
In essence, immigration could easily become more salient to voters if we see the levels of it rise substantially. The simplest explanation for why levels come up on polls is to do with infrastructure. Take the housing crisis. Already there are signs the Government will fail to get its Planning Bill through – and build the millions more homes this country needs. Yet the Government is relaxing the aforementioned controls. Liberal policies should go hand in hand with practical considerations.
The Government’s new measures – from the Australian-style points system to the digital border – may sound radical, but if they do not tackle the root of voters’ concerns, then there will be electoral trouble.
The speech here: