Thursday’s immigration figures will have made for grim reading for Rishi Sunak: net migration and the backlog of asylum claims have reached record highs. The surge is a big increase in net arrivals: In 2021 around 500,000 people moved to the UK, yet this week’s official statistics show a record figure of 606,000 for 2022. This is roughly double the levels of immigration seen before Brexit. EU citizens have been replaced two-fold by humanitarian help for Ukrainians, Hong Kongers and Afghans, as well as legitimate economic migrants and students from places like India and Nigeria.
Recent history warns us a Tory backbench rebellion is never far away, and the coming recess could provide perfect conditions for a mutiny to incubate as MPs to return to their constituencies, away from the calming influences of the whips, and listening to constituent complaints. Expect Brexit-obsessed red wallers in particular to return to Westminster with renewed recalcitrance: no matter what side you were on in the referendum, a huge surge in net immigration rates was not what any voter had in mind.
Immigration might not be the issue voters care most about – most polls suggest the cost of living takes that prize. But legal immigration is a difficult, emotive issue, and not one Sunak wants to be talking about. The PM is much more comfortable focusing on illegal migrants arriving on small boats, where he can take a strict line, as well as his other four priorities. Worse still, legal migrants help his promise to grow the economy – yet he has been forced to make reducing overall immigration a priority to placate his Home Secretary, scores of own MPs and key voter groups who view it as a front line issue. What’s worse, the immigration hawks within both Parliament and public now have irrefutable evidence of a target botched: Sunak, despite supposedly having complete control of the borders thanks to Brexit, has doubled the net migration that he promised to cut.
Labour are just as split. Sadiq Khan has described Labour as a “pro-immigration party”, yet on LBC this Thursday, Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper declined three times to agree with him. If the Conservative issue is placating a wing of the party which is zealous in its desperation to cut immigration, the historic Labour dilemma has been one of embarrassment: strong rhetoric against immigration feels like something Labour MPs recognise might be a necessary evil to win over swing votes. Labour’s 2015 ‘Controls on Immigration’ branded mug was deemed so tasteless it gained a kind of legendary status, and is still an ironic staple of CLP cupboards across the country. Yet Labour still finds itself trying to affect a kind of macho confidence on the subject which it does not really have.
PMQs was dominated by a pre-emptive squabble based on estimated numbers far higher than the real statistics published the next day. But it was a reminder that as politics enters the long run into the general election neither side has complete control over the issue of the day, nor can they decide what voters will choose to care about.