Boris can’t save the Tories. He made this immigration mess

Boris Johnson holding a previous Conservative Party manifesto
Boris Johnson holding a previous Conservative Party manifesto

It is a testament to the extraordinary endurance of Boris Johnson’s personal mythology that even now there remain large parts of the Conservative Party that treat him as a panic button, a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency electoral super-weapon.

With barely two more weeks of the campaign to go and no sign of any improvement in the Tories’ dire polling, this week tens of thousands of letters “signed by the former prime minister” are due to land on the doormats of “wavering Tories”. There is talk of Johnson putting in personal campaign appearances too – when he gets back from his holidays, of course.

However, there seems a very obvious danger with putting Johnson back in the spotlight. Reform UK voters are overwhelmingly ex-Conservatives, yes. They backed him in 2019, many perhaps casting their first ever ballot for the Tories. But why have they turned on the Government over the past five years? Because it has failed to deliver on the promises Johnson made in that election campaign – and he must personally bear a lot of the blame.

Yes, there was a pandemic, and the huge expense of furlough and lockdown used up the funds that might have been spent on a more thorough programme of levelling up (although even in December 2019, the then-prime minister seemed to have no clear idea what that would actually look like. But there is no such excuse on immigration. Johnson played a starring role in the Vote Leave campaign, which made controlling our borders central to its pitch to voters. Implicit in that, to everyone except a handful of wonks, was a promise to bring net immigration down.

Instead, Johnson decided to use his new, points-based immigration system to turn on the taps. Even allowing for the exceptional nature of arrivals from Hong Kong and Ukraine, the numbers are at historic highs. Perhaps he sincerely believed those advisers who said, when pollsters reported lower public emphasis on immigration post-Brexit, that meant the voters had really just been interested in theoretical control (rather than that they had just returned a government with an explicit mandate to cut it).

Or maybe he was simply driven towards it by unrelenting lobbying from those departments – Business, Education, and the Treasury – which form Whitehall’s permanent lobby for more immigration and yet more. Regardless, the single most important broken promise to the sorts of voters defecting to Reform UK was broken by him. Don’t expect Nigel Farage to be shy about pointing that out.