Migrants in small boats: Tory obsession

Battle for Tory soul

There is more trouble for Sunak, writes Eddie Ford, with record net figures - much to the anger and consternation of the Tory right

Things are just getting worse and worse for Rishi Sunak, who is facing a growing rebellion from the right of his party - especially on the “totemic” issue of immigration. The latest bad news for the prime minister comes with the net migration figures from the Office for National Statistics, which showed a record 745,000 coming to the UK in 2022 - three times higher than the level before Brexit.

But, as always, the devil lies in the detail. What needs to be emphasised about these figures is what has driven them - Ukrainians, Hong Kongers, people from the Indian sub-continent and elsewhere coming to fill low-paid jobs, particularly in the NHS and the care sector. However, provisional data for the year ending in June 2023 shows a lower net migration figure of 672,000, after 1.2 million people came to live in the UK for at least a year, and 508,000 left for sunnier climes. Though this was a year-on-year increase of 65,000 from the previous time period, it has led to speculation among statisticians that net migration may actually be on a downward trend - something that was drowned out by the hue and cry coming from the rightwing press and MPs, especially on the Tory back benches. But you cannot expect such people to grapple with statistical complexity or swim against the tide of right populism and national chauvinism.

Naturally, the ONS cautioned that its estimates could be revised again - whether upward or downward, given that migration patterns are currently quite volatile. Anyhow, the vast majority (968,000) arriving were from countries outside the European Union, with students accounting for the largest group of non-EU migrants (263,000). Then there were 322,000 work-related visas issued for this period, up from 198,000 in the year to June 2022 - nearly two-thirds went to Indian, Nigerian and Zimbabwean nationals, replacing EU workers in sectors of the economy that are struggling to recruit staff since Brexit. Then again, what do you expect when you have Sunak boasting about how successful he has been in keeping wages down in the public sector, forcing workers to look for other jobs to maintain living standards - hence the 132,000 NHS and 152,000 adult care sector vacancies.

Separate home office visa and asylum data showed there was little change in the total number of people seeking asylum in the UK - at 76,000 for the year ending in September 2023. There were 56,042 people in hotel accommodation. In the same time period, 25,000 people reached the UK in small boats, compared with 33,000 in the previous period.


Quick as a flash, regardless of what the ONS figures might actually say, former home secretary Suella Braverman described the numbers as a “slap in the face” to the British people, who have “voted to control and reduce migration at every opportunity”, In order to combat the “unsustainable” pressure on public services, she has called for an annual cap on net migration, closing the graduate visa route and placing a cap on health and social care visas. According to her, “Brexit gave us the tools” and now “it’s time to use them” - though what exactly she means by that is slightly mysterious.

Of course, the row presents a perfect opportunity for her to advance her obvious ambition to become the Tory right’s most prominent spokesperson and then party leader when Sunak falls on his sword after the near inevitable general election defeat next year. As part of this plan, she was quickly elevated to the status of a rightwing martyr after she got what she wanted and was sacked by Rishi Sunak for her various incendiary comments that delighted narrowminded bigots everywhere - the crunch possibly coming with the mad (but calculated) remark about Met Police “bias” towards the left and pro-Palestine demonstrators.

Indeed, in a bid to increase her profile on the right, Braverman has repeatedly threatened to release documents showing that Sunak had agreed to policy demands on migration before she backed him to become prime minister after the rapid collapse of Liz Truss’s government. Coming to her assistance, The Daily Telegraph says it has a copy of the deal, which pledged to increase the minimum salary for a skilled worker arriving in the UK from £26,000 to £40,000, as well as ending extended visas for graduates, further limiting family members people can bring, and prioritising certain universities for student visas.1

Naturally, No10 has denied any formal plan and they might well be right - maybe some deliberate wishful thinking on the part of Braverman. But Kemi Badenoch, business secretary - another person on the hard right with leadership ambitions - hinted at the beginning of the week that the salary threshold could be increased anyway as part of “much, much tougher measures” that are supposedly being drawn up.

With Tory dissatisfaction bubbling over, this week immigration minister Robert Jenrick appeared to distance himself from Rishi Sunak. It is widely reported that Jenrick - once seen as someone close to the prime minister - has presented his own five-point plan to No10, with Sunak looking more and more isolated, if not besieged. Answering an urgent question in the Commons about whether his plan would be in place before Christmas, he craftily replied: “My plan would have been brought to the house before last Christmas if I could have done, but let’s hope we can bring forward a substantive package of reforms very quickly”. As you would expect, former cabinet ministers Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg and Sir Simon Clarke have also been very vocal in calling for more action to bring down migration.

Running out of patience, the New Conservatives group of diehard rightwing MPs said the migration issue was “do or die” for the party - issuing a statement saying that “each of us made a promise to the electorate” that cannot be ignored. In a rightwing pincer move, the Common Sense Group has written to Sunak pressing for “urgent” action on legal migration numbers, and seeking assurances that a promised bill to overcome the supreme court’s rejection of the Rwanda plan is a “belt and braces affair” that can resist future legal challenges (that is, it can “disapply” some or all of the human rights law - international and domestic - on which that judgment was founded). This letter was triggered by recent remarks from the new home secretary, James Cleverly, urging people not to “fixate” on the government’s Rwanda deportation plan or “prejudge” the content of emergency legislation on the scheme.

This did not go down well with many Conservative MPs, furthering reinforcing the impression that the prime minister is not going fast and far enough on immigration - that he is not really serious about the issue. Writing in The Guardian, the often perceptive centre-right journalist, Rafael Behr - long ago disillusioned with a Tory Party that has become too ‘unconservative’ - argued that Rwanda is “a proxy in the war for the Tory soul” and “it’s a war Rishi Sunak is losing” (November 29). A pantomime show for a party heading to defeat.

Both the New Conservatives and the Common Sense Group want the government to come out with an immediate plan to reduce migration before the general election. But this seems very unlikely for the simple reason that the Commons recess is due to begin on December 19 and therefore - at least in theory - there are not enough sitting days to ratify a new treaty with Rwanda before the new year under the current schedule, No10 stating that at least 21 days are required. How very convenient, some might say.


You can see why the right is up in arms over migration - and the general drift of the Sunak government - because it is a living symbol of failure. Back in 2010, David Cameron made the laughable pledge as prime minister to reduce net migration to “tens of thousands” - clearly a fantasy figure, as many people observed at the time. In fact, perhaps because Dodgy Dave could not deliver the undeliverable, we saw the result we did with Brexit. Theresa May too promised to bring net migration down to under 100,000 a year. In some respects, Sunak has made a similar albatross for himself in the form of small boats. Everyone knows, including himself, that he will not “stop the boats” carrying asylum-seekers across the Channel, even if we are talking about very small beer indeed, compared to the numbers coming legally.

Yet the Tories are still caught in that bind from which there is no escape. Yes, the party’s post-Brexit 2019 manifesto vowed that “overall numbers will come down” and “we will ensure that the British people are always in control” - but without setting a specific target or any concrete plan of action. The ONS has painfully reminded them that no progress has been made. Quite the opposite, if anything. No wonder the Tory right is going through an existentialist crisis. It appears that the government is considering measures to reduce net migration, including limiting to one the number of relatives that health and social care workers are allowed to bring with them, abolishing the system allowing employers to pay less where there are recognised shortages and - as demanded by Suella Braverman - raising the minimum salary threshold for work visas. But it is all desperate stuff that is not going to work, even if the government tries to implement any of these measures before they are thrown out by the electorate.

Totally predictably, Sir Keir Starmer thundered about how the “shockingly high” net migration represented “a failure not just of immigration, but also of asylum and of the economy” - the obvious inference being that Labour would crack down harder on migration than the weakling Tories. Darren Jones, the shadow chief secretary to the treasury, claimed that a Labour government would cut net migration to “normal levels” of a “couple of hundred thousand a year” within its first term. This sounds like another hostage to fortune, though he did add a qualification to the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg by saying Labour “probably would hope to do that”, but, remember, “we’ve talked about a decade of national renewal”, as it would take “some time to fix the deep structural problems” left by successive Conservative governments. At least he left himself a get-out clause, unlike David Cameron.

Rishi Sunak is a prisoner of his own policies. Unsurprisingly, the prime minister, backed by his new foreign secretary, Cameron, and his home secretary, James Cleverly, is believed to be very reluctant to give in to demands to block human rights laws, so that asylum-seekers can be sent to Rwanda. That would obviously undermine Britain’s standing as a law-abiding member of the ‘international community’, making it a lot harder for him and his ministers to lecture the likes of Valdimir Putin on the sanctity of the post-World War II international architecture.

There is also the fact that pulling out of the European Convention on Human Rights, which the right dearly wants, could potentially sabotage the Good Friday agreement - Rishi Sunak having sweated blood over the Windsor framework. The same goes for the Rwanda scheme - the prime minister looking for some magical way of drafting a bill that sees the UK abiding by its international obligations, whilst at the same time also giving anti-ECHR Tory backbenchers what they want. An impossible trick, because you cannot hoodwink Suella Braverman and her fellow thinkers, who will always come back for more red meat, no matter how much you concede to their demands (as Brexit taught us).

No10 is also very aware that there could be a significant backlash if they did actually succeed somehow in reducing the numbers coming perfectly legally to Britain. As the ONS shows us, many of the arrivals have come to work in the NHS and care homes - so chucking lots of them out would only intensify the crisis in those sectors and make a lot of people even more unhappy with the Tory government, including potential voters. Similarly with the international student numbers. Clamping down on student visas could harm the finances of universities, which use overseas fees to cross-subsidise the studies of UK students.

That is something else that would seriously upset people in the run-up to a general election - how smart would that be?

  1. telegraph.co.uk/politics/2023/11/26/sunak-agreed-to-40k-salary-threshold-for-migrants-braverman.↩︎