November 21, 2023 - 1:00pm

British voters, especially national populists, are annoyed by small boats, high immigration and pro-Palestine marches, but most do not yet realise the transformative scale of today’s immigration levels. Ahead of the publication of UK migration statistics later this week, they are not sufficiently agitated to support an electoral insurgency.

The academic Matthew Goodwin pointed out that voters support the Rwanda scheme by a 40-32 margin, rising to 71% among 2019 Tory voters. YouGov’s most important issues tracker shows that immigration is, for the first time since Brexit, the top issue for Conservatives, and a leading concern for 37% of the public.

On the other hand, by a 57-20 margin, people support Suella Braverman’s sacking from the post of home secretary, as does a slim 44-39 share of 2019 Tory voters and Leave voters. How can we make sense of these apparently contradictory findings? To find out, I conducted a small survey of 289 2019 Conservative voters on Prolific, a platform used by many academics, on Monday. The sample divided 43-39 in favour of sacking Braverman, about the same as YouGov’s nationally representative data from last week.

The most important factor predicting support for Braverman’s sacking is popular perception of the scale of immigration. Those who have noticed substantially higher immigration since Brexit are much less likely to agree with sacking the former home secretary than other Tory voters. Older voters like her more than the young, 2017 Tory voters more than 2017 Labour-Tory switchers, and Leavers more than Remainers. The chart below shows how support for Braverman changes as these parameters are altered: some three in four Labour-Tory switchers backed Braverman’s sacking, compared to just 32% of those Tories who believe immigration has increased a lot since Brexit.

When I asked respondents to summarise Braverman in a few words, Left-liberal critiques tended to paint her as a nasty racist; conservative respondents who worry about immigration but think she should be sacked tend to see her as rude, ambitious, uncaring and obnoxious, as the word cloud below reveals. When asked why they favoured her removal, such voters were mainly concerned about her undermining Rishi Sunak, the party or the police’s authority. Mainstream media coverage may have shaped the perceptions of such voters.

Source: Prolific, 20 November 2023, via Descriptions of Braverman from 17 pro-sacking, restrictionist Tory Leave voters.

Yet in today’s high-migration status quo, with resistance from Tory liberals and a hostile media, only an abrasive politician is likely to break through. Britain is unlikely to produce a polite restrictionist who walks softly and carries a big stick. The question, therefore, is how much migration national conservative voters can tolerate before they hold their nose and vote for an upstart.  

Net migration to Britain declined somewhat between 2016 and 2021 due to Brexit and the pandemic. However, it has reached an unprecedented 500,000-700,000 during 2022-2023 as Channel crossings soared. It is therefore striking that in my sample of Tories, just 39% felt immigration had “increased a lot” since Brexit. This is only two points higher than what I found in a similar sample on 22 May prior to net migration figures of 600,000 being announced. When I had a second sample of 2019 Tories read about the new figures, the share saying immigration had risen a lot leapt 20 points to 57%, revealing the headroom that still exists for perceptions of immigration levels to rise.

The priority of immigration as a top issue among Tories has risen since May from 54 to 61%, yet this is still about 10 points lower than prior to the Brexit vote. Brexit and the pandemic have faded as issues but the economy is still nearly as important as immigration for Conservatives, with healthcare at 43%. Further change in these indicators is probably required before immigration dominates the small-c conservative electorate as squarely as it did pre-Brexit.

It took four years for record-breaking immigration levels under Tony Blair to begin costing him votes, several more for it to fuel the rise of the BNP and a decade to power Ukip’s rise. Reform UK is up a few points since May, sometimes reaching 10%, but public opinion is a tanker that takes time to change course. As it does, it is likely to further split the Tories before becoming a hospital pass for Starmer.

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).