When Theresa May’s allies defend the government’s arbitrary target to reduce annual net migration below 100,000, they point to support for the policy in opinion polls. Yet there is growing evidence that worries about immigration have dropped down people’s list of concerns since the European Union referendum two years ago.
Similarly, the survey by BMG Research for The Independentsuggests that opinion about the target may now be more nuancedthan those who defend it suggest. A total of 47 per cent of people support abandoning the target or raising the cap. When “don’t knows” are excluded, 54 per cent want to ditch the target and 46 per cent want to keep the cap or lower it.
There may also be a growing recognition amongst the public that the rigid target has perverse effects, such as deterring foreign students from coming to the UK – undermining one of the country’s most successful sectors. The target also provides an excuse to stick with discredited policies such as the cap on skilled workers from outside the EU, which has prevented the NHS from recruiting the doctors and nurses it urgently needs.
The Independent welcomes the apparent shift in public opinion. We have consistently opposed the back-of-an-envelope policy announced hastily by David Cameron in the run-up to the 2010 general election, and have exposed its shortcomings in our Drop the Target campaign with the Open Britain group.
It is now rather misleading to describe the target as the government’s policy; it would be more accurate to say it is the prime minister’s. She is increasingly isolated on the issue in her own party. Cabinet ministers have rightly forced her to ease the cap on visas for foreign doctors and nurses. They scent victory in their efforts to ensure that overseas students are finally taken out of the target, despite Ms May’s longstanding opposition.
Sajid Javid would not normally have been the prime minister’s first choice as home secretary when Amber Rudd resigned in April amid the Windrush scandal, because he had been willing to stand up to Ms May in his previous jobs. But in the circumstances, she acknowledged he was the right choice.
Mr Javid has lived up to his word, on his appointment, about being his own man. He used his position of strength, and Ms May’s relative weakness, to dump her “hostile environment” policy on illegal immigration, which she put in place as home secretary, which allowed the Windrush affair to happen.
Mr Javid is now drawing up the post-Brexit regime for EU migrants. A white paper and immigration bill are long overdue. The home secretary should resist pressure from Downing Street to rush out his policy ahead of parliament’s summer break. He would be wise to wait until after the independent Migration Advisory Committee reports in September. It is likely to highlight how British business will continue to need EU migration.
The government might also need to allow something close to the current free movement system in order to win access to the single market and protect British jobs – that would be a sensible trade-off.
To answer critics who would then accuse her of not honouring the Brexit referendum result, Ms May might be tempted to stick to her migration target as a fig leaf and signal that she is still tough on immigration. Mr Javid, who pays lip service to the target on the grounds that it was in last year’s Tory manifesto, should use his strength to persuade Ms May to drop it.
So opinion appears to be shifting. Some people who worried about immigration may feel the vote in favour of Brexit will sort the problem. Indeed, net migration has fallen from 336,000 to 244,000 a year since 2015, due largely to the “Brexit effect” on EU migration. But it is still running at a level which shows how unrealistic the target remains, and it is an open secret that it will not be met.