OPINION - Braverman, Sunak, and what we won’t say when we talk about immigration
When it comes to British politics, all intra-party squabbles must in the first instance be viewed as a part of an ongoing proxy war. That is not to say that nothing is ever as it seems. Sometimes, an argument about health spending really is about nurses and doctors. But much of the time, like couples fighting over the dishes, it pertains to something else.
Suella Braverman faces criticism today not only from Labour but from fellow Conservative MPs over a possible breach of the ministerial code, after she allegedly asked civil servants about arranging a private speed awareness course which would have allowed her to avoid three points on her licence. Braverman insists there was “nothing untoward” about her handling of the offence.
Allies of the home secretary have called the allegations a ‘smear’, a ‘witch hunt’ and the latest evidence of the amorphous blob in action. Opponents intimate hers is the greatest subversive use of the British state since the Suez crisis. I’d say the reality is somewhere in between, but I don’t actually know where that would be.
At the same time, a YouGov poll out this afternoon finds that 41 per cent of Britons think the home secretary should resign. But Braverman is a senior cabinet minister in a very unpopular government – it would be strange and frankly far more newsworthy if a plurality of the public didn’t hold strongly negative views about her!
The reality is that Braverman does not appear to have used her position as then-attorney general to evade legal punishment, merely to enquire as to whether she might take a course in private. You could argue this was ill-judged – not least because I’m sceptical how many fellow speeders would have recognised her. But it is not exactly Profumo.
The reason this matters, and why everyone has taken to their pre-ordained positions, is because this is not about speeding, but the pace of immigration. As discussed in Friday’s newsletter, high levels of net migration are a feature, not a bug, of government policy, insofar as they are the only lever of growth the chancellor has managed to locate.
The problem stems from the fact that neither Jeremy Hunt nor Rishi Sunak is particularly keen on spelling this out. The advantage of keeping quiet is they can hope to enjoy the economic benefits of immigration without discussing where the growth is actually coming from. The downside is that it enables opponents of immigration to call for reductions without they themselves having to concede that this would involve tradeoffs.
To be clear, this is not a Tory Party-only phenomenon. To this day, some still pin the blame for the UK’s vote to leave the European Union on Tony Blair’s decision not to implement transitional restrictions on the free movement of people from the ‘A8 countries’ of Eastern Europe who joined the bloc in 2004: Czechia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.
At the time that decision was taken, Britain’s economy was booming, employers wanted the labour, and the UK had long been a cheerleader for eastward expansion. In 2013, former home secretary Jack Straw called the decision not to impose restrictions a “spectacular mistake“. But then, as now, economic considerations came first, and Labour went on to win the 2005 general election on the back of a robust economy.
Here’s the thing: until we are prepared to have a grownup conversation about the connection between immigration and economic growth, and the tradeoffs involved, we will forever be stuck talking about something else.
In the comment pages, Rohan Silva calls Martin Amis the greatest chronicler of London since Charles Dickens. Stephen King says the arrogant Bank of England has made our inflation crisis worse. Nancy Durrant believes the harrumphing fuss over the Black Out event at Theatre Royal Stratford East is misguided. While Melanie McDonagh takes a hack to weeds at Chelsea Flower Show, the latest in the horticulture wars.
And finally, Josh Barrie simply does not miss. In his latest ‘dishes that can do one’ series, he deals once and for all with the BBQ chicken pizza.
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