March 13, 2023 - 4:00pm

The crisis over illegal immigration, and Rishi Sunak’s willingness to defy Labour and Gary Lineker by signalling his commitment to ‘stop the boats’, could help the Conservatives win back the 2019 voters who have abandoned them.

There are 36 million genuine refugees worldwide and a further 53 million internally displaced. On top of that, there are at least 900 million people seeking to emigrate, meaning that all Western countries must grapple with the question of how to limit numbers and distribute refugee burdens.

The increase in channel crossings stems from these global pressures as well as the fact that while Brexit releases Britain from sharing EU refugee burdens, it also means that France, an EU country, no longer has to accept asylum seekers back from Britain. The growing awareness of this loophole, and of the ineffectiveness of British law enforcement, is thereby producing a rise in channel crossings.

This problem is not going to go away, as it is a structural issue affecting the entire West. Migration scholar Michael S. Teitelbaum writes that the internet and established global people-smuggling networks now mean that such networks are highly responsive to information about soft entry points. Policies or statements ‘signalling openness…can be quickly disseminated globally’. Numbers can increase very rapidly to take advantage of loopholes, as Figure 1 shows with respect to channel crossings.

Credit: BBC

These migration surges in turn decide elections. As Teitelbaum wrote in 2015:

The chaotic 1980 Mariel boatlift of nearly 125,000 Cubans to Florida was unintentionally stimulated by U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s humanitarian statements. All agree that this episode contributed substantially to his defeat later that year by Ronald Reagan. Though denied by the White House, there is considerable evidence that U.S. President Barack Obama’s “executive action” in 2012 that created a new temporary legal status for unauthorized migrant children may have encouraged tens of thousands more to migrate to the United States in 2013 and 2014.
- Michael S. Teitelbaum

The latter helped Donald Trump win the Republican nomination and the 2016 election, just as the 2015 migrant crisis in Europe was a shot in the arm for the populist Right and weakened the social democratic Left.

Might the same be true for Britain in 2023? Possibly. Polling by UnHerd presented in Figure 2 shows that of 10 ‘populist’ issues polled, none commands as much support from 2019 Conservative voters as the statement that ‘immigration is too high’. 53% of Tory and Brexit voters ‘strongly agree’ with this statement, with 77% agreeing overall and just 7% disagreeing. In contrast, just 58% of Right party voters disagree that Britain was wrong to leave the EU while 30% agree. On lockdown, more Right voters support it than say it was a mistake, while they are divided on green issues. In effect, trying to campaign on libertarian economics is a dead end for the Tories while a focus on security issues, especially border control, is a winner.

It is of course true that record channel crossings and migration have soared on the Tories’ watch, so voters concerned about migration will not be able to punish an incumbent, as with Reagan or Trump. New polling from Matthew Goodwin for 8 March shows that 2019 Tory voters agree, by an 83-6 margin, that ‘people arriving in the UK illegally such as on small boats should be removed from the UK and blocked from returning in the future.’ The population as a whole concurs, 52-25.

When asked who they trust to manage the small boats crisis, 39% of 2019 Tory voters say Rishi Sunak, 38% say nobody and a mere 3% reply Keir Starmer. Much will therefore depend on whether Tory policies can put a dent in the numbers and whether Sunak is able to raise the not unreasonable fear that Labour will take the side of progressive Twitter and do little to address border control. For instance, Sunak’s announcement, alongside Emmanuel Macron, of a new migration processing centre in France, is being resisted by Labour. If it helps stem the flow, Starmer’s opposition could cement a perception that Labour stands for open borders.

The third factor is whether immigration rises as a priority for voters. Cost of living and the economy are of course leading issues, even for Conservatives. However, Figure 3 shows that immigration, as of 6 March, is a top-3 issue for 51% of Conservative voters, an increase from around 25% in mid-2020.

Research shows that immigration salience predicts voting for populist Right parties. The rising prominence of the immigration issue, success in halting the rise in channel crossings and a convincing message that Labour would undo such changes could combine to allow Sunak to woo back the Brexit voters who have deserted the Tories in droves. All of which could derail Labour’s heretofore inevitable march to victory.

Eric Kaufmann is Professor at the University of Buckingham, and author of the upcoming Taboo: Why Making Race Sacred Led to a Cultural Revolution (Forum Press UK, June 6)/The Third Awokening: A 12-Point Plan for Rolling Back Progressive Extremism (Bombardier Books USA, May 14).