Conditions are worsening at Manston processing centre. Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty

November 28, 2022   6 mins

The Conservatives have lost control of immigration. Over the past year, according to data released last week, net migration into Britain has soared to 504,000, the highest on record. This means half a million more people are coming into Britain than are leaving – that’s a city the size of Liverpool every year.

But not only are the Tories presiding over record amounts of legal migration, they are also overseeing a rapid rise in numbers of people arriving in the country unlawfully, in small boats across the Channel.

The number of people arriving in this manner has now rocketed from 300 to nearly 40,000 in five years. The largest single group of foreign nationals on the boats come not from a war-torn country but Albania, a country that is currently in talks to join the EU.

What is happening on the south coast underlines how the entire system is a shambles. The small boats have been coming for five years and yet nobody inside the Conservative Party, inside government, has managed to get on top of this issue.

In recent days, it was revealed that dozens of asylum seekers with suspected diphtheria are now being moved around Britain, another 37,000 are being housed in hotels up and down the country at a cost to British taxpayers of £7m every day, and the number of outstanding asylum claims has just reached its highest point on record, with 140,000 asylum-seekers waiting decisions and fewer than one in five being processed.

All this is especially striking given that all the revolts which reshaped British politics over the last decade — the rise of Nigel Farage, the Brexit vote, the arrival of Boris Johnson — were driven by people who no longer wanted Britain to be organised around this broken model of mass immigration and insecure borders.

The desire to lower, not just control, immigration was consistently one of the strongest drivers of whether somebody voted for Brexit and then, later, in 2017 and 2019, whether they left Labour for the Conservatives.

Lower immigration is also what they were promised by the Conservative Party and their national leaders. The Conservative’s 2019 manifesto was crystal clear: “There will be fewer lower-skilled migrants and overall numbers will come down”, they wrote. “And we will ensure that the British people are always in control.”

But people are not in control. The numbers are not coming down. And nor will they come down in the years ahead. While the latest immigration figures have certainly been swollen by specific crises, including an urgent and justifiable need to help genuine refugees from Ukraine, Afghanistan, and Hong Kong (which most British people, like me, support), they also reflect a key point which many Conservatives are today downplaying — they liberalised the country’s immigration system.

In direct opposition to what they promised voters, Boris Johnson and his Tory party introduced sweeping changes that few people noticed and to which few of their opponents in the Labour Party have objected.

The party dumped the target to cut migration numbers. The cap on work visas was dropped. The criteria for somebody to qualify as a skilled worker was loosened. The salary thresholds for jobs were lowered well below the average salary in the country. It was made much easier for not just students but their relatives to come, study and then work after they leave university. Even the requirement that businesses must demonstrate that jobs cannot be done by British workers — an obvious reply to the vote for Brexit — was dropped.

And so, while the Tories like to talk a great deal about ending the free movement of EU nationals and taking back control, immigration from outside the EU has rocketed to record levels. Of the more than one million people who came last year, two-thirds have come from outside the European Union.

It is also now clear that, contrary to what much of the country wants, this model of mass migration will remain firmly in place for the rest of the decade, if not beyond, and irrespective of who is in No 10.

As the Office for Budget Responsibility made clear in its economic forecasts two weeks ago, Britain will now continue to have net migration of at least 200,000 every year until the end of the 2020s, if not for much longer. While the British people will be urged to spend what little savings they have left, to keep consuming while paying more and more tax, the country will continue to rely on large-scale migration and constant demographic churn to try and deliver what little growth there will be.

Who voted for this? Who wants this? If you look at the latest surveys, only 10% of Britain thinks immigration since the Brexit referendum has been “too low” and only 19% want it increased in the years ahead.

Among Tory voters, who are now abandoning the party in droves, the numbers are even more striking. Of the people who voted for Boris Johnson not even three years ago, no fewer than 75% say immigration since the Brexit referendum has been “too high”, 65% want it reduced and 85% say the Government is managing immigration “badly”.

In fact, so badly have the Tories managed this issue that over the past two years the share of their own voters who back the party on this issue has completely collapsed, from a peak of 75% to just 38% today.

These numbers explain why Rishi Sunak and his team are now working overtime to try to win these voters back, telling anybody who will listen they have launched ‘Operation Get Tough’ – an attempt to crack down on crime, immigration and the small boats.

But it is all too little too late. The rising tide of apathy and alienation across much of the country does not reflect the events of the last few months, it reflects the fact that for more than a decade now the Tories have consistently over-promised and underdelivered.

By pushing on with mass immigration, by failing to genuinely take back control of Britain’s borders, by refusing to reform modern slavery legislation and Britain’s relationship with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the only things that would enable the country to truly regain control of its borders, the Conservative Party is about to send British politics all the way back to the early 2010s, where a divided society gives rise to an ugly populism.

That Britain’s liberal minority would respond badly to the Brexit vote and refuse to compromise on immigration was always my fear. We’ve seen something similar in America with their refusal to take Trump voters and the southern border seriously, as well as in Europe, where unresolved public concerns have driven the likes of Giorgia Meloni, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orbán, the Sweden Democrats, Vox in Spain and Chega in Portugal to record high results at elections in 2022.

Rather than put the brakes on mass immigration, and have a few years or even a decade of slow or moderate immigration — something that would help support integration and restore public confidence in the system — our political class has done the exact opposite. And so here we are, once again in the fast lane and driving toward a renewed populism and a much darker politics. Last week, Ipsos-MORI found that the salience or perceived importance of immigration to voters has jumped ten points. It is now the third priority for all voters and the second for Conservative voters who all look unhappy with what both the Conservatives and Labour are saying on this issue.

While Keir Starmer is making all the right noises for the Red Wall, underlining his refusal to reintroduce free movement and commitment to investing in British workers, the fact remains that when voters are asked which party would best handle immigration the top answer is “I don’t know”. Only four in ten back the big two parties and not even one in five backs the Tories. This is exactly where we were in the early 2010s, with much of the country giving up on everybody on an issue they really care a great deal about.

It is a similar story when it comes to the small boats. Three-quarters of all voters now think the Government has “no plan” for dealing with the crisis while large majorities believe their leaders have lost control of Britain’s borders. So badly managed has the crisis been that it does not really matter what Rishi Sunak does now — nobody will believe him.

All of this, put simply, is a very a dangerous place for any society to be — especially one in which the ruling class spent more than a decade promising voters they would reduce immigration and restore control.

For all these reasons, it now feels as though it is only a matter of time until Nigel Farage announces his full return to frontline politics and takes the Reform party, already on 5% in the polls, to more like 15%, more than enough to bury the Conservative Party at the next general election. He has also confirmed that Reform will stand a full slate of candidates at the next election. And don’t rule out the possibility of defections. This weekend, it was revealed that Farage has been holding talks with Red Wall MPs, many of whom are also talking openly about simply quitting the Tories forever.

If even half of this happens, then Rishi Sunak and the Conservatives can kiss goodbye to their hope of clinging onto power. By continually failing to lower migration and take control of Britain’s borders, by failing to honour their own promise, they have not only let down the country but have undermined their own electoral prospects. And they only have themselves to blame.

Matthew Goodwin is Professor of Politics at the University of Kent. His new book, Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics, is out on March 30.