How The Tory Leadership Contest Can Move The Party On From May's Toxic Immigration Legacy

Theresa May’s immigration policy represented the very worst of her intellectually dishonest, practically flawed regime. The next PM can start over again.
TOLGA AKMEN via Getty Images

In politics the outlandish can be made to feel inevitable. With the power of the machine, the procedural control of the agenda, and the certainty of the commentariat, those in office have every opportunity to set the topic of the discussion and the terms of debate.

Even a weak and failing administration, as Theresa May’s most surely was, is able to make the extraordinary seem run of the mill. But now, as the fog begins to lift, the outgoing Prime Minister’s position becomes ever more clear. Today her stance on immigration can be seen clearly for what it always was – extreme to the point of absurdity.

It was Theresa May of course who first identified that the Tories had become the Nasty Party. Yet today, no policy – not even the squeeze on social security – has made the Conservatives appear less human than the hard-hearted immigration regime she ordered and oversaw.

What is so clarifying about the current interregnum is just how out of touch the old system now seems – and how quickly her cabinet colleagues have moved to distance themselves from it. In the two week alone, three leadership campaigns have begun with a clear rejection of some of the excesses of the May era.

Even before the resignation, but with an eye clearly fixed on the contest to come, Sajid Javid ordered a review of the Prime Minister’s cherished £30,000 post-Brexit immigration threshold. It has always been clear that a blunt threshold would be disastrous for our economy and damaging to our public services, and would do little to restore faith in a system that will continue to see hundreds of thousands come to the UK. After all, in the most recent figures – released just as the PM was preparing to announce her departure – net migration from outside the EU, already subject to the £30,000 salary threshold, was north of 200,000.

Next, Michael Gove launched his campaign with a big offer to the 3 million or so EU migrants currently living in the UK for an easy – and free – path to citizenship. An open offer on citizenship rights, irrespective of Brexit negotiations, wasn’t just a promise of the Leave campaign, it was the view of the vast majority of the then cabinet immediately after the referendum. Theresa May’s decision to use EU citizens rights as widely condemned – the Spectator’s Fraser Nelson called it ‘repulsive’.

And now Matthew Hancock has announced plans to ensure free movement for medics - in direct contrast to the ludicrous position we used to have under May in which our short staffed NHS found itself held back by the self-defeating system of caps and targets so treasured by the outgoing Prime Minister.

What’s going on? Well, the Conservative Party has been in majority government for just two of the last 22 years. Any leadership candidate that wants to get them back there will have to do a lot more than appeal to the base. They will need to reach to the centre – the Lib Dems, as well as Nigel Farage, took Tory votes last week. And to do so, leaving Brexit aside, there is no clearer signal they can send than the beginnings of a new approach to immigration, built on sound principles.

So what else should be on the agenda? Citizenship looks like low-hanging fruit. Changes would be popular and represent a straightforward way for candidates to signal a break from the past. Michael Gove’s proposals are a big step in the right direction, and I would expect other candidates to match him, but others could go further. For example, young people living in the UK who meet all the eligibility criteria to become citizens currently face enormous fees – the Home Office makes a 300% profit on their applications – and delays of months or years. Making it cheaper and faster for these young people to obtain the right to live here permanently would enjoy popular support whilst signalling that a sense of natural justice is coming back to the system. Today, tens of thousands of young people are eligible but undocumented, facing a huge financial barrier to citizenship which can prevent them from renting, working or learning in their own country. That should change. Seeing citizenship as a path to social inclusion and integration, and something that should be encouraged not deterred, is exactly the sort of modern thinking the Tories need if they are to rebuild their fracturing coalition.

If political failure isn’t followed by a fresh approach it is bound to be repeated. Theresa May’s immigration policy represented the very worst of her regime - intellectually dishonest and practically flawed. From unthinking restrictionism to uncaring barriers to citizenship, her approach has failed. Last week moving on and reaching out felt outlandish. Today, the Tory leadership candidates have the power to make it inevitable.