As I have written previously, one of the fundamental difficulties the Conservatives face on immigration is that whilst both ministers and voters will the end – lowering it – they seldom seem to will the means by which that could be achieved.
On the government side, this means making bold pledges and sending the home secretary du jour off to play bad cop whilst quietly ratcheting up the numbers and allowing other departments, such as Business and Education, to keep advocating for higher numbers yet.
The voters, meanwhile, are keen to bring the numbers down but keener still on having sufficient working-age people in the economy to keep paying for pensions and other welfare, and decidedly hostile to measures which would help British people have the children they want but cannot afford.
That was the first big lacuna which leapt out at me from Suella Braverman’s big speech yesterday on reforming the Refugee Convention. She acknowledged that “the fundamental drivers of this epoch-defining challenge are economics and demography” – but focused only on the demographics of the countries from which people may come, and not the tottering generational pyramids fuelling demand for immigration in the West.
Ah, you might say, but that isn’t fair, is it. Braverman’s speech was focused specifically on asylum and the problems posed by an international legal order drawn up in another age. Of course it was going to focus on external factors.
Except it wasn’t so focused; that’s another strange thing about it. The call for reform of the Refugee Convention stole the headlines, and she topped and tailed the speech with graphic descriptions of the crisis in the Mediterranean and the Government’s efforts to combat channel crossings.
But elsewhere, Braverman blurs the lines between that and the broader question of mass immigration. Right at the start, she talks about “a critical and shared global challenge: uncontrolled and illegal migration”; further on, she discusses the need for democratic consent and the danger to civil cohesion posed by importing too many people.
Conflating these issues is both clumsy and politically maladroit. The proper level of legal immigration is an important topic, but as I outlined above it raises quite different questions to that of illegal migration and people-smuggling. It is also obviously a more salient and sensitive topic for the growing share of British voters who are either immigrants or of immigrant descent, in a way that asylum policy is not.
See too Braverman’s claim that “a misguided dogma of multiculturalism have proven a toxic combination for Europe”.
Again, this is certainly an argument one can make. But if the Home Secretary was going to do so, she really ought to have taken some time to define her terms. To many listeners not steeped in the history of immigration policy, multiculturalism just means today’s multiracial society – the success of which the Home Secretary, and indeed the Prime Minister, could be seen to embody.
Of course, it did originally refer to a conscious shift in how immigration was managed, a deliberate decision to downplay the older focus on integration and indeed assimilation. Plenty of recent developments – last year’s unrest in Leicester; Lutfur Rahman’s capture of Tower Hamlets; the outstanding fatwah against a British teacher, who is still in hiding; the shameful conduct of the police after schoolboys received death threats for scuffing the Quran; Rotherham – justify casting a critical eye over that decision.
But it is a subject that needs to be handled with some care, and justifies its own speech, rather than being lumped in with small boats.
Taken by themselves, Braverman’s views on the Refugee Convention are not radically novel. Indeed her case was put succinctly by no less than Tony Blair in his 2010 memoir A Journey. The basic fact is that vastly more people qualify for asylum than Britain or other Western nations could or should take, and this number is only going to increase, due both to changing global conditions and the gradual lowering of the thresholds by liberally-inclined judges.
As such, there is a strong prima facie case for at least reviewing the current international arrangements and seeing if they need adjusting to the very different world of the 2020s. But lumping that case in with a broad-spectrum broadside against legal immigration and multiculturalism seems more likely to galvanise and maximise the opposition than to peel off open-minded waverers.
Which brings us to the inevitable political dimension of the Home Secretary delivering this sort of speech the week before party conference.
Downing Street says it stands behind it, and of course it could hardly say anything else. It is also true that the Government has not been shy about talking up the prospect of quitting the European Convention of Human Rights if it stymies its efforts to bring channel crossings under control; in that sense Braverman’s ambitions to reform the Refugee Convention are different in scale rather than kind.
But with the Conservatives still well behind in the polls and the election looming, any such intervention by a senior minister is going to be analysed through the lens of a future leadership contest (even one made safely on the other side of the Atlantic).
Braverman ran for the leadership in 2022; she would doubtless like to do so again. Her speech to the National Conservative conference in May sparked allegations that she was undermining Rishi Sunak; so too will this. Yet she made it anyway.