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Artillery Row

No one will believe the Conservatives on immigration

They have broken promises far too many times

It isn’t the usual subject matter for The Critic but I thought I would announce it here nonetheless: I’m planning to cap the number of energy drinks I consume.

Now, it’s true that I claimed that I was going to do this in 2023, and in 2022, and in 2021, and in 2020. But this time I mean it. Promise.

Sure, I’m not going to tell you what that cap is. I’m just committing to some sort of vague reduction that I’ll decide on in the future after speaking with friends.

But I’m exempting Monsters and Red Bull.

If this sounds a bit ridiculous, it doesn’t sound half as ridiculous as Rishi Sunak promising a “migration cap”. Hey, I’m not a mindreader. It’s possible that he’s sincere. But it was possible that every prime ministerial candidate who promised to reduce migration levels was being sincere, and none of them really tried.

In an article from 2022, Anthony Bowles wrote:

It is not so much that the public were never asked to support increased immigration: they were routinely asked if they wanted immigration to be restricted, and they supported that policy at every election. No government has been elected in Britain with anything other than a mandate to control immigration below its prevailing level. Yet for thirty years, the pattern has persisted: once elected on this mandate, governments pursued a policy of sustaining and increasing immigration.

Naturally, this included the Conservatives:

Cameron’s Conservatives were the largest party after the 2010 election and they promised to “take net migration back to the levels of the 1990s — tens of thousands a year, not hundreds of thousands”. Any guess what happened? Net migration over five years averaged 247,000, whilst new arrivals passed 600,000 in 2014. Seeking re-election, the Tories reiterated their “tens of thousands pledge” in 2015 and again under Theresa May in 2017. Across the four year period of these governments, net migration averaged 251,000 a year. Taking back control, in 2019 Boris Johnson quietly dropped the “tens of thousands” commitment after nine years of no serious attempt to meet it. In its place, his manifesto made a promise of “fewer low-skilled migrants and overall numbers will come down”.

That Sunak is unveiling this policy in the immediate aftermath of Nigel Farage’s announcement that he will lead Reform into the General Election hardly diminishes the sense of opportunism. 

Neither does the vagueness. To be fair, the pledge that Parliament will vote on numbers of migrants, informed by recommendations from the Migration Advisory Committee, was not plucked from thin air. This has been inspired by Robert Jenrick and Neil O’Brien’s serious and substantive recent report on immigration

Yet there is no reference to the very first proposal in Jenrick and O’Brien’s report:

We should reaffirm a national commitment to reducing net migration to the tens of thousands — the target under David Cameron. This is possible now we have left the EU.

This unwillingness to make a clear and radical commitment is especially striking when there is almost no chance that they will be in a position to fulfill it. Such is the leftwards drift of the Conservatives on immigration that even compelling lies are beyond the boundaries of their institutional Overton Window.

The Conservatives have also reportedly announced that students and seasonal workers will be exempted from this “cap” — arguably rational, were it not that their supporters have already witnessed years of system-undermining workarounds and corruption.

The plain fact is that the Conservatives have taken their voters for granted year after year and it is coming back to bite them. Whatever you think of immigration, you have to admit that it is farcical for James Cleverly to be making videos about how “Labour has history when it comes to immigration” when the Conservatives’ present “when it comes to immigration”, after fourteen years in power, is defined by record heights.

“If you persuade people that you’re listening to what they have to say,” said Fraser Nelson in 2017, “You don’t have to come up with policies banning immigration. All you have to do is say, ‘I understand your concerns’.” 

Nelson’s example was David Cameron. “He had a policy of cutting immigration by two thirds,” said Nelson, “Now, he completely failed … but the fact that he had that target counted for a lot.” Perhaps, in a cynical sense, that was true. But you can’t get away with it again and again. People are eventually going to cotton on. 

After 2010, and 2015, and 2017, and 2019, people have cottoned on. I doubt that Sunak is going to change their minds — even if he comes cap in hand.

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