How the Conservatives created the monster that's destroying them

The mismatch between Tory rhetoric on immigration and record high levels of new arrivals has fuelled the rise of the Reform party

In 2015, the then Prime Minister David Cameron decried “uncontrolled immigration” on the grounds it was pushing down wages. “Working people want a government that is on their side,” he said as he talked of getting net migration down to “tens of thousands”. Meanwhile, figures were published showing net migration had hit an estimated 318,000 in 2014.

The following year, Cameron found himself propelled from office after a wave of anti-immigration sentiment swept the UK out of the European Union despite experts’ warnings about the effect on the economy.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

In January, Rishi Sunak celebrated new restrictions which meant that most foreign university students “cannot bring family members to the UK”. “In 2024 we’re already delivering for the British people,” he said. Just like Cameron, Sunak made it clear that tackling immigration was a vital task for the government, even though last year net migration totalled 685,000 after hitting the record figure of 764,000 in 2022.

Nigel Farage stands in front of a poster that was compared to Nazi propaganda during the run-up to the Brexit referendum (Picture: Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images)Nigel Farage stands in front of a poster that was compared to Nazi propaganda during the run-up to the Brexit referendum (Picture: Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images)
Nigel Farage stands in front of a poster that was compared to Nazi propaganda during the run-up to the Brexit referendum (Picture: Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images)

Importance of foreign students

Barely noticed were the protests from universities. Richard Evans, a Cambridge University professor, complained the “short-sighted and arrogant” policy would discourage international graduate students upon which “research-intensive universities depend heavily”. It didn’t seem to matter that foreign students’ fees help British universities provide a world-class education, they were “immigrants” and, therefore, a problem.

Read More
What Labour would mean for immigration policy

Next month, Sunak is set to be swept out of office by two main factors: first, widespread discontent about the state of the country and the Conservatives’ shambolic behaviour in government and, second, anti-immigration sentiment that’s seen a surge in support for Nigel Farage’s Reform party.

The connection is obvious: Sunak and Cameron both talked up immigration as a serious ‘problem’ while it became dramatically ‘worse’, leading to a glaring mismatch between rhetoric and reality. They sought to win votes by echoing the rallying cry of nationalist populists the world over. Instead, they helped summon the monster that is currently destroying the Conservative party.

There are good reasons why net immigration has been so high, chief among them the need to fill job vacancies. Without new arrivals, those jobs would have eventually disappeared, making the economy smaller and the country poorer.

Liberal Tory party ‘is gone’

Of course, there are practical problems with large increases in population, but politicians, Labour and Tory alike, seem to be running scared of explaining the benefits. If Farage’s dream of net-zero immigration ever happens, it will damage the economy but the man who gave us Brexit unsurprisingly does not care.

Faced with this danger, the business community needs to start lobbying politicians and publicly making the positive case for immigration or they may find this supply of much-needed labour is cut off, particularly as the Conservative party, if it survives, looks likely to become a carbon copy of Reform.

Former Cabinet minister Rory Stewart recently told Australia’s ABC News that he thought the socially liberal, fiscally Conservative party he had been a member of “is gone” with right-wing voters now wanting a “Trump package” centred on anti-immigration policies and culture wars, a change in attitudes he feared could be “permanent”.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

It is this that represents the greatest threat. Rousing anti-migration, nationalistic sentiments is the main mechanism used by the hard-right and far-right alike to win power. And if the latter ever take control, the monster fed and nurtured by misguided liberal Conservatives like Cameron could end up consuming democracy itself.

Comments

 0 comments

Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.