The problem for politicians answering a question about whether something – taxes, spending or in this case immigration – is too high is that, if they answer ‘yes’, the next question will inevitably follow: so what level should it be?
Rishi Sunak fell into this trap today, after he said that immigration to Britain is “too high” but declined to commit to lowering it significantly before the next election.
The prime minister, like a number of his predecessors, has managed to reach the top of politics without being especially adept at thinking on his feet. Just watch his obvious discomfort following a moderately left-field question from Sky’s Beth Rigby. But in this case, Sunak’s hesitation is more serious because it reveals a tension at the top of government.
Higher levels of immigration lie at the heart of the Conservatives’ economic policy. Jeremy Hunt has called immigration “very important”. Indeed, higher levels of migration were a key factor behind the Office for Budget Responsibility upgrading its output forecasts by 0.2 per cent – its biggest-ever upward revision to potential growth that can be attributed to government policy. Though for context, it expects Brexit to reduce long-run productivity by 4 per cent. Which is more.
At the same time, immigration is a delicate political issue for the government. First, there is ‘small boats’. Then the 2019 Conservative Manifesto, which pledged to reduce the overall number of migrants. Yet, as chief political correspondent Rachael Burford notes, figures due to be released next week are expected to show net migration soar to more than 700,000.
Now, this is partly a one-off, with intake higher due to the Ukraine and Hong Kong visa schemes, which together represent around 300,000 people. And the government will point out that, unlike when Britain was a member of the EU, it now has a greater say on who can come to this country.
But Sunak knows that numbers will not fall immediately. The UK is reliant on foreign healthcare workers to staff the NHS and students to fund its universities – though a crackdown on visas for family members of students is looming.
The home secretary, Suella Braverman, is clearly unhappy with current levels of immigration and keen for the press and party members to know about it. Yet she can be outmanoeuvred by the Treasury. On the other hand, a rift between Number 10 and 11 would prove far more serious and destabilising for the functioning of government.
The reality is this: until the prime minister can figure out another way to boost GDP, and as long as it remains politically viable, he will continue to tolerate higher levels of immigration, because that is one of the few levers of growth his government has managed to locate. When put like that, perhaps Sunak’s original answer wasn’t so bad.
In the comment pages, Emily Sheffield says we need a muscular BBC to fight the coming tide of AI disinformation. I write about how I’ve become hooked on the no man’s land in our memories – the time after history stops but before experience begins. While Simon English calls Nationwide a building society to treasure, but suggests it could be kinder to wannabe members.
And finally, from Fran Lebowitz’s West End show to Richmond Park and — on the advice of her daughter — how going blonder means having more fun: Jerry Hall does My London.
Have a lovely weekend.
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