India, Sierra Leone, Kenya and Nigeria. These are where parents were born of the four current and former cabinet members most prominent in British government discussions of migration policy.
The heritages of, respectively, prime minister Rishi Sunak, home secretary James Cleverly, sacked former home secretary Suella Braverman and business secretary Kemi Badenoch may suggest that the ruling Conservative Party has a cosmopolitan view of the issue at its highest level.
Don’t be fooled. Under pressure from the party’s overwhelmingly white British grassroots, Sunak is being pushed into a crackdown to assuage right-wing backbench right-wing Tories who are limbering up for yet another big internal party row.
Less than a year out from the next election, Sunak must be careful. Westminster’s political graveyard is littered with the corpses of Conservative former prime ministers who fell foul of the party’s right wing. John Major called them all “b***ards”. They also did for Theresa May and, before her, David Cameron, who made his comeback this month amid the hubbub around Braverman’s sacking.
Sunak is under pressure on two fronts on immigration. Firstly, he must dampen criticism over (perfectly legal) net migration. The Office for National Statistics last week dramatically revised upwards its estimate for last year to a record 745,000 – 140,000 more than previously thought. In its last election manifesto in 2019, the Conservative Party promised to bring the number down. Instead of reducing, it has tripled.
The second wheel of Sunak’s runaway immigration quandary concerns the separate issue of asylum seekers, into which is usually bundled the slightly different topic of illegal immigration. Its importance is illustrated in relentless Tory promises to stop the “small boats” bringing asylum seekers to England’s shores from France.
A government plan to staunch the flow by deporting such arrivals to Rwanda has been struck down, for now, by the supreme court. Sunak is under pressure from his backbenchers to throw out international human rights law to force through the Rwanda plan, but there are splits in the party over whether to do this.
Meanwhile, recent grumblings from potential future leadership candidates such as Badenoch over legal migration show that divisions over the wider issue of immigration go all the way up to the cabinet table, even after the sacking of hardliner Braverman.
As the Tories get ready to internally rumble over their pet topic of immigration, it remains to be seen how it will all go down with voters. Most polls show the electorate consider immigration to be only the fourth most important election topic after the cost of living, the economy and health.
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