Poppy Coburn is a journalist.
Why on earth would anybody want to be Home Secretary? The job has long been regarded as a poisoned chalice, and only two post-war politicians who it subsequently became Prime Minister: Jim Callaghan and Theresa May.
Amidst such misfortunate, Suella Braverman can’t be blamed for seeking refuge at the National Conservatism’conference last week. There, the cheap-dates of the political right could be wooed with affirmations of female biology (“women don’t have a penis!”), while lefty dissenters could promptly be removed by armed security.
Unfortunately for Braverman, her problems exist outside a sweaty auditorium. The official figures on inward migration are expected this week and, if predictions are correct, seem sure to shock even the most pessimistic restrictionist.
The most widely-cited figure hovers at around 700,000, with the Centre for Policy Studies warning that numbers could top out at just shy of a million. That will mean that the party of taking back control has tripled migration since 2019 – double from the previous pre-Brexit peak.
Migration is an issue that Braverman has always been vocal about. She hinted during her leadership campaign last summer that as Prime Minister she’d be willing to see Britain exit the ECHR. She clashed with Liz Truss over her open-borders, free-trade optimism, and aired “concerns about the direction of this government… commitment to honouring manifesto commitments, such as reducing overall migration numbers” in her resignation letter. Her long-standing sceptism of legal migration, particularly in the form of student dependents and low-skilled workers, marks her out as an oddity in a party that quietly shelved its pledge to reduce overall numbers back in 2019.
So she is, on paper, the ideal Home Secretary to placate the fears of the British people concerned about the demographic transformation of their country – unafraid to take on the pithily-dubbed “Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati”, as she calls them, and their “lefty lawyer” shocktroops. Unfortunately for her, though, her enemies are far closer to home. As her last-ditch push for reform in the past few weeks have shown, her detractors are more likely to work for the Treasury, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Education or the Department for Health and Social Care than the Good Law Project.
Let’s start with the Department for Education – since it seems to be this department that Braverman’s agenda rankled most recently. The Government is allegedly planning to introduce restrictions on student dependents for all those below a PhD level of education. This is an understandable move: the number of dependents has risen tenfold since 2018, in direct response to Boris Johnson’s student visa liberalisation.
Some 135,788 dependents were brought to the UK last year, reflecting a shift in the makeup of the international student body: as with work visas, Nigerians and Indians now find Britain a far more attractive place to study. For some nationalities, more dependents are brought over than actual students, correlating to those groups who drove the post-2019 explosion. So far, so simple: this appears to be a cut and dry example of an unintended consequence resultant from poor policy, and because the change was so recent, should in theory be easy to undo.
Not so. The economic model adopted by post-1992 universities means that they aren’t selling an education – rather, they’re actually selling a residence permit. Gillian Keegan has stated that she is proud that the sector exceeded their target of 600,000 international students eight years ahead of target, with the DfE expecting said target to continue to be delivered year on year. Justine Greening, a former Education Secretary, released an open letter late last year warning the Government not to crack down on foreign students. Her claim that it would harm the sector is hard to refute, since many low-performing universities are indeed reliant on the cash injection these students bring.
This conflict is noteworthy only by the surprising suggestion that the Home Secretary may have won this battle. In others, she has not been so lucky. Her greatest opponent comes in the form of the Treasury. Far from toughening up, it appears keen to slash restrictions wherever they can be found. A Home Office bid to raise salary thresholds to £26,000 to £33,000, still below the £38,000 average wage, was rejected out of hand. This minimum threshold is itself a point of contention with an ever-increasing list of exceptions for shortage occupations.
In some cases, a reticence to toughen restrictions is wholly justified. The Department for Health and Social Care has long opposed immigration restrictionism. 57,000 visas for care workers, for many jobs paying little more than minimum wage, seem to contradict demands to upskill the sector. Short-term emergency measures have become permanent responses. Our population is aging rapidly, and demand for workers grows ever higher. No long-term plan to respond to this has been drafted.
Construction jobs also appear on the labour shortage list, with the most recent relaxations occurring just a few weeks ago. This isn’t necessarily a strange thing, until one considers: where will these builders live? According to Migration Watch we don’t have enough houses for the people already here, let alone those we’re bringing over. It’s a policy reminiscent of an old nursery rhyme about a lady who swallows a fly. She consumes larger and larger animals to get at said fly and the creature proceeding it, the situation growing increasingly farcical until she drops dead.
It’s hard not to get the impression that our immigration approach is defined primarily by confusion. As legal migration has soared, so too has the number of Britons signed on to Universal Credit. The number of claimants has nearly doubled since March 2020, with many of these novel recipients under the onus of PiP (health). Hunt is no Iain Duncan Smith: as Fraser Nelson sees it, “The Tories have somehow managed to combine mass joblessness with mass worker shortages”. Without wishing to repeat dog-eared slogans about lazy, workshy Brits, this is clearly not a sustainable situation.
Exiting the EU was supposed it easier to control inward legal migration, and it has. The mistake many made in the aftermath of the referendum was to think this is what the post-2019 Conservative party would want to do. Instead, post-Brexit Britain embraced the ‘global’ branding by inviting the world: out go the EEA plumbers making sizable tax contributions, in come Nigerian Pilates instructors, Pakistani takeaway managers and Indian students.
This is concerning. A study by Oxford Economics (2018) commissioned by the Migration Advisory Committee estimated the net fiscal contribution of EEA migrants of FY 2016-17 at £4.6 billion, versus a net cost of £9 billion for non-EEA migrants – the very same people our current approach favours.
Immigration is easy, because it’s quick. Never mind that it doesn’t address the structural problems facing our country, and in some cases could make them worse. This is the fundamental problem behind Britain’s embrace of mass migration: it allows us to dodge a broader long-term industrial strategy, precisely because the short-term labour fix is so easy. Even when returns are the temptation to juice short-term stat is too attractive to forgo.
It is this temptation that might prove fatal for Braverman’s tenure. Her forced resignation from Truss’ government last year, ostensibly for a breach of Ministerial Code, may have pre-empted a messier exit over ideology. As Rishi Sunak considers the implications of an alleged second breach of conduct, this bonus might sway is thinking. It’s not even like he need dirty his hands: easier to outsource the job to someone else. At least it keeps in character.