Migration is likely to be a first-order issue in this election campaign. It is also going to be the most contentious. Speculation on the Tories' likely strategy is running rife. So what are the options available?
The first option, which has been implicit in the Prime Minister's comments so far, is to stick to business as usual. Under this scenario, the manifesto would simply re-state the Conservative's commitment to bringing down net migration to below 100,000 (after all, this strategy served them well in the last two elections). While not setting out any clear plans for future arrangements on free movement, greater controls of some form will be pledged so the commitment would carry greater credibility than in 2015. Should a compromise on international students be reached in advance of the campaign (as has been reported in The Times), this would make the target more tenable. Despite recent falls in overall numbers, students remain the largest migrant category. This is the safest option and plays into the Tory focus on strong and stable leadership.
The second option is to pivot the strategy on getting the best deal out of the Brexit negotiations - offering concessions on EU citizens in the UK aimed at appeasing EU counterparts (by for example offering deemed leave, as argued by IPPR) and leaving options open for the arrangements for future EU migration. While restating its commitment for greater control over EU migration, the Government would avoid any level of detail on its exact plan on the basis that this would risk limiting its options once it sits down round the negotiating table following the election. This option leaves unanswered the question of what to do about non-EU migration. But the reality is that any reforms for non-EU will be conditional on what is delivered on EU migration anyway. Given that so much hinges on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, this would be the most honest option.
There is a third option. The strategy here would be to send out a clear message that the UK will play hard ball round the negotiating table, while staying open for business with the rest of the world. To counteract a commitment to end EU free movement (as suggested by the Prime Minister and reported in the Daily Mail), the manifesto would seek to instrumentalise migration as a tool in its pursuit of the national interest in the post-Brexit reality. This could include measures that are actively designed to let in (even attract?) migrants which are lucrative (investors and international students) and to actively use the promise of visas and work permits to help Britain pursue its economic interests beyond the EU (for example, in its pursuit of favourable trade deals with powerhouses like India and China). Surveys suggest that handled carefully this strategy could play well with voters (particularly voters from some BME commuities) and Universities. But given high levels of dependence on EU workers, employers are likely to think otherwise.
The lack of time means that what we see in a couple of weeks is more likely to be a statement of purpose with little by way of detailed policy. This is probably intentional, a carefully designed obfuscation strategy aimed at achieving the impossible: reassure the public that Britain will have more control over its borders, avoid hurried campaign promises which could spook EU counterparts, raise the prospects of labour shortages and lead to a punishing trade deal, while still sending out the message that we're open for business loud and clear.
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