11 October 2022

Reversing Boris Johnson’s immigration approach lacks public support


The Prime Minister has said she is willing to do unpopular things to secure growth. She also faces discord in her cabinet over her government’s approach to immigration, with some urging liberalisation to boost the economy while others call for cuts to overall numbers.

New research published today from Ipsos and British Future, tracking public attitudes to immigration since 2015, suggests that relaxing some immigration controls would actually be a popular pro-growth move for the public. Those who want to reduce immigration numbers would need to target flows of migration that are broadly popular with voters – and would need to decide which of Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit immigration reforms they wanted to repeal.

Johnson’s government made some of the most significant changes to the immigration system for four decades. His overall approach to immigration could be summed up in three words: ‘Control not reduce’.

While ending free movement brought significant new restrictions for EU migration, the government chose to significantly relax non-EU immigration policy. An NHS visa saw increased migration for NHS jobs, while Johnson’s government also made it easier for international students to stay and work in Britain for two years after graduating, making Britain a more attractive destination for fee-paying students. Perhaps the biggest single post-Brexit migration policy choice 
was the new BN(O) visa for people coming to the UK from Hong Kong, with over 125,000 Hong Kongers taking up the UK’s offer.

The legacy of ‘control not reduce’ is that immigration remains high, at pre-pandemic levels, and is rising rather than falling. Yet the new attitudes tracker data finds strong public support for immigration, with more people feeling positive than negative. Support for reducing immigration is at its lowest level in seven years. For most of the public, control of immigration is important – but control does not necessarily mean ‘reduce’.

Yet the Johnson government did not make a sustained public case for its approach. Instead, it had mixed messages when it came to immigration numbers. On his first day in No10 Johnson ditched the political millstone of the net migration target; yet a late addition to the 2019 Conservative manifesto then promised that ‘overall numbers would fall’.

The Conservatives now face something of a dilemma. While only in four in ten of the general public want reductions in immigration, that rises to 61% of Conservative supporters. Yet most Conservative reducers turn out to apply the principle very selectively: only one in five would reduce the number of seasonal fruit-pickers (19%) or social care workers (21%). Only three in ten would reduce the number of students (29%), construction workers (28%) or restaurant staff (27%). Commitments to support the NHS and boost economic growth apply a further cross-pressure.

So what approach should Liz Truss now take to immigration?

The Government could commit to reducing overall levels of immigration. Home Secretary Suella Braverman has suggested that she would like to. That, however, would mean reversing some of the specific policy changes introduced by the Johnson government – and three of those that have made significant contributions to immigration numbers seem especially unlikely to be reversed.

It is highly unlikely that there would be support inside government or in the Commons for curtailing the BN(O) visa scheme for Hong Kongers. Liz Truss has previously been a champion of the policy and Suella Braverman praised the BN(O) scheme in her conference speech.

Curbing migration of healthcare workers to fill NHS staff shortages looks similarly unlikely, with Health Secretary Therese Coffey proposing a major international recruitment drive for health and social care workers to deal with short-term pressures.

And while the Home Secretary has drawn attention to international students (and their dependents) as a flow of migration that she would consider reducing, their popularity with the public – and the estimated £25 billion they contribute to the economy each year – would seem to make significant cuts unlikely for a government focused on economic growth.

The flow of migration with by far the highest public profile is that of people making boat crossing across the Channel. This is no-one’s idea of a controlled approach to immigration, and the public clearly wants something to be done to reduce the number of people making such dangerous journeys. The Government’s Rwanda scheme is polarising, with a minority strongly supportive and a similar-sized minority strongly opposed to it. Most people do not think it will succeed in its aim of reducing the number of people who try to enter the UK, without permission, to seek asylum. But even if it reduced these numbers to zero, it would have only a minor impact on overall immigration numbers, as refugees and asylum seekers make up only a small proportion of total immigration numbers.

A second option would be continuity, in which the Government continues to talk about its general preference for reduced immigration, but without making that a significant priority in its policy choices – and also being willing to override it for pragmatic reasons in specific cases. This appears to be the Government’s initial approach, with the Home Secretary speaking of her aspiration to reduce annual net migration to within the ‘tens of thousands’ target set by David Cameron, while other members of cabinet discuss liberalising immigration controls for health and agricultural workers, or as part of a trade deal with India

The political downside of this approach is that the Government continues to ask to be judged by a measure – reducing overall numbers – without making policy choices to deliver it.

So future governments might pursue a third option: responding to the shift in public attitudes with a much greater focus on managing migration rather than reducing it. This could involve ensuring that pressures on housing or school places are managed well and that employers take their share of responsibility for the integration of new workers; reviewing citizenship policy to actively encourage citizenship for those settling in the UK longterm; and engaging voters in the choices that governments make on immigration, under the ‘control not reduce’ approach.

It is important that we can have a conversation about immigration, as with any other political issue. But the claim that all we will hear from the public is a demand for reductions no longer holds.

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Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.