Author: Katy Balls
The Prime Minister cares about just three things, one Cabinet minister recently remarked: Philip May, immigration, and planning permission. If your job touches on any of those areas, you can expect to feel Downing Street breathing down your neck.
So, when Theresa May brought in James Brokenshire as Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, she must have felt a pang of relief: Sajid Javid had been moved away from a job where he was all too keen to take an axe to the UK’s planning rules. With her close ally now in the job, the green belt looks to stay green for the forseeable future.
But the cost of moving Javid from local government was putting him in at the Home Office, where he is now busy picking away at the former Home Secretary’s other great passion. Since Javid was moved to that great office of state, he has been intent on doing what Amber Rudd struggled to do, and put some clear blue water between himself and May.
Within seven hours of starting the job, Javid had ditched May’s “hostile environment” immigration phrase for the slightly softer-sounding “compliant environment”. He has gone on to win a Cabinet row on easing the rules on medical cannabis, and now he is thought to be preparing to take the fight to the Prime Minister’s pet issue: immigration.
‘Fairer, more compassionate’
The talk in Westminster is that he has turned his attention to the immigration policy dating back to May’s time at the Home Office. Earlier this summer, he told Parliament’s joint human rights committee that he wanted to introduce a “fairer, more compassionate” immigration system. As things stand, the Conservatives have a target to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands. This target wasn’t the product of careful message testing or economic projections. Instead, it originates from a television appearance gone wrong when Damian Green, then immigration minister, came up with “tens of thousands” on live TV. As Home Secretary, May decided to run with it – not least because a figure would focus minds on the task at hand.
The Tories are still some way off their target. Last year, immigration sat at 282,000, and in the aftermath of the Windrush scandal, there are several Conservatives who think that it has all gone too far and a new strategy is required. Others think that if the target cannot be scrapped completely, at the very least students should be dropped from it.
This row has been ongoing since David Cameron was Prime Minister. George Osborne, Sajid Javid and Philip Hammond were part of a group that demanded that May do just this. She declined on the basis that such a move would amount to fiddling the figures and only increase the chance of disbelief at the Government’s commitment to the target.
May sits alone
In a sign of May’s wavering authority, since becoming Prime Minister the calls for a rethink on immigration have only grown louder. Ruth Davidson – the leader of the Scottish Conservatives – has called for the target to be dropped, arguing that it would help the Tories to attract a more liberal audience. Just this week, Liam Fox hinted that he too thought it was time for the target to go, saying that the Government needed to “look” at how it shaped its immigration policy going forward.
In fact, if we are to believe May’s old foe George Osborne, the only person sitting around the Cabinet table who actually supports the target is the Prime Minister. If she was in a powerful position, that would be enough for it to be a matter of case closed. But she is not – and sources in Whitehall suggest that this could be the next issue on which she gives way.
As Home Secretary, Javid has refused to state explicitly that he supports the target, and has said that the inclusion of students presents a “perception probem”. Allies of Javid say that his next victory in his new role could be to successfully bring about a rethink on immigration. Should this happen, it would no doubt be welcomed by the bulk of the Conservative parliamentary party. But it would also be damning for May’s authority. As one insider put it: “If the target goes, what’s left of Mayism?”
At a time when many observers are predicting that May’s premiership has entered its final stages, it would not be a good look for her authority.
The road to leadership
As for Javid, however, it could prove a key part of the plank on which he would stand in any future leadership contest. As i reported last week, the Home Secretary’s friends insist that he is serious about putting his hat in the ring should the opportunity arise.
The parliamentary party is desperate for a candidate who can stop Boris Johnson and unite the warring factions. If Javid, who is a Thatcherite on the economy, can implement a more liberal immigration policy, he will open himself up to a whole new Tory tribe of potential supporters. Read more at: https://inews.co.uk/opinion/columnists/sajid-javid-immigration-targets-katy-balls/
It could confirm his status as a leader-in-waiting. But for May, it would do the reverse: confirming her as a leader in name only.