The Tories should be proud of Britain’s migration numbers – and they have Boris Johnson to thank

·6-min read

It feels like a lifetime ago that a Rochdale pensioner buttonholed Gordon Brown over what she called eastern Europeans “flocking” to Britain. Even then Gillian Duffy might not have made the headlines, except that later Brown was caught on mic calling her a “bigoted woman”, thus putting a memorable name and face to the endless debate about whether it’s racist to worry about immigration.

At the time, annual net movement to Britain was about 252,000, and Labour was starting to worry about a backlash. By the time David Cameron – who took office promising to reduce it to the “tens of thousands” – called his Brexit referendum in 2016, net annual migration was 335,000 , and Vote Leave was vowing to take back control of Britain’s borders (though carefully it never specified what “control” meant). It had fallen back almost to Brown-era levels when Boris Johnson succeeded Theresa May, and while he went into an election casually promising that overall numbers would fall, May’s former chief of staff, Nick Timothy, disclosed this week that ministers were told not to repeat that pledge since their laid-back new leader didn’t actually believe in it.

Sure enough, annual immigration had hit 504,000 by the time Rishi Sunak took office, and this week the Office for National Statistics reported a rise to 606,000 (though that may partly reflect a change this year in the way it compiles the figures). The really interesting twist in the tale? All those numbers bear surprisingly little resemblance to what people actually think.

Back in the febrile Brexit summer of 2016, 70% of Britons told the pollster YouGov that immigration was too high. By last December, only 57% agreed, even though immigration itself had clearly shot up. “Too high” isn’t really a number but a feeling: a mood almost certainly influenced by lurid headlines about dinghies crossing the Channel – whose poor occupants have somehow become the public face of anxiety about immigration, although until this week they weren’t even included in the annual figures – or things heard down the pub, but perhaps also by a sense of whether the government is generally on top of things or mired in chaos. Which brings us, inevitably, to Boris Johnson.

For all the hard rhetoric of his government, not to mention the crowd-pleasing casual racism that occasionally littered his newspaper columns, it was Johnson who ended up offering sanctuary to anywhere up to 3 million citizens of Hong Kong fleeing a Chinese crackdown, plus hundreds of thousands of refugees from Ukraine and as many Afghans working with British forces as could be rescued before Kabul fell to the Taliban. (Such humanitarian schemes accounted for more than a quarter of net immigration in 2022.)

It was Johnson’s government, too, that actively recruited foreign master’s students by promising they could stay and work for up to three years after graduating, a ploy to attract bright minds to Britain (and use their tuition fees to bolster higher education funding). If immigration feels “too high” to Tory voters – those most obviously driving that sentiment now – it’s largely the result of Tory governments actively pursuing policies that pushed it up despite promising to do the opposite, as Labour MPs have been quick to point out.

What few politicians are willing to say, however, is that – at least in a parallel universe where politicians were actually honest about what they were doing and why, instead of making promises they can’t deliver and then running away – those figures would more accurately be deemed a success than a failure.

Why isn’t it a matter for national pride, not embarrassment, that British universities are still such an extraordinary draw for the brightest minds in the world? Why can’t we just be open about the fact that growth would almost certainly have been even lower, taxes even higher and the NHS even more broken than it is today had Johnson stuck to that empty promise? But instead of making the argument for policies agreed when he himself was chancellor, Rishi Sunak now boasts of making study visas less attractive by ending the right to bring dependents.

Meanwhile, Suella Braverman claims – without offering any evidence – that master’s students’ families have been putting “untenable pressure on public services”. How terribly convenient, to have something other than a shortage of GPs to blame for the shortage of GP appointments. But the truth is, you’re probably more likely to be treated by a migrant worker than queue behind one, given four of the top five occupations granted skilled worker visas last year involved health or social care.

Related: Why the panic over rising immigration? The post-Brexit system is working | Jonathan Portes

Any debate about whether immigration is too high, too low or just right ought to start by asking: right for what, exactly? Right for economic growth, social cohesion, the general human good, or for sustainable public services in a rapidly ageing country with an alarmingly shrunken tax base? (To the Canadian government, now actively aiming to attract half a million migrants a year to protect its economy from the consequences of a low birthrate and shrinking tax base, our numbers must look like a dream.) But in Britain, it seems to start with nervously trying to second-guess a public that is itself now confused.

According to YouGov, a majority do still want immigration to come down but even bigger majorities simultaneously say they’re happy with the current number or more of skilled migrants, students and refugees fleeing war and persecution. That leaves low-skilled migrants, mostly doing the jobs that Britons don’t want to do themselves, as the obvious target. However, the fruit pickers and poultry packers hired as cheap temporary labour aren’t even included in this week’s ONS stats, but without them we would probably have even higher food prices and empty supermarket shelves. Try that, and see how fast the voters (and newspaper editors) who clamoured for this turn on you.

A cynic might argue that in saying immigration must fall, both Sunak and Keir Starmer are merely playing for time: they can see they’re likely to get their wish without inflicting this kind of self-harm. This week’s headline number looks dramatic but is actually lower than predicted, with the ONS noting signs of immigration slowing towards the end of the year – unsurprisingly, given the British economy was doing the same.

An end to the war in Ukraine, allowing refugees to go home, would also bring numbers down dramatically. The peak, in short, may already have passed and the long-term trend is towards voters being more relaxed about immigration. It’s just that on the evidence of the past few jittery days, it may take politicians a depressingly long time to catch up.

  • Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist

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