Posted on October 12th 2017
By Ruth Grove-White, JCWI Policy Adviser
Tory party conference 2017 will go down in history as the most famous ever stage appearance made by a cough.
But there was lots that was useful on immigration too. The conference provided more clarity on Government’s immigration timetable, and showcased a range of views on the backbenches.
Having had a busy few days ranging across the Tory conference for JCWI (and sticking my oar in where possible), here are my top three takeaways:
- Campaigners wishing to influence the Conservatives on post-Brexit immigration policy need to get on the front foot in the coming year
In a fringe meeting at the beginning of conference, Immigration Minister Brandon Lewis confirmed that the white paper for the Immigration Bill will be released later than expected this autumn. The Bill itself will be laid at the beginning of the year, providing only a very broad framework for new immigration rules for EEA nationals after Brexit. It won’t be until autumn 2018 when some meat will be put on the bone with the release of further regulations on post-Brexit policy. During this period, it is likely that post-Brexit trade negotiations will open with the EU, in which immigration rules will be one of many issues up for discussion. By next autumn, the planks will be in place.
This gives campaigners a year of potential opportunity to make arguments for a fair, humane, rights-based approach to immigration after Brexit, appealing both to Westminster and Brussels. After this (depending on the shape of wider Brexit negotiations) the window of opportunity could slam shut.
- Conservatives are in favour of ending free movement and ‘taking back control’ – but many seem pragmatic about what comes next on immigration.
Although PM Theresa May has kept on talking tough on migrants, this conference revealed that many in the Conservative party remain pragmatists rather than ideologues on immigration. The general feeling on the fringes of the Tory conference seemed to be relief that Brexit could at last allow the Government to ‘take back control’ of immigration (or at least to appear to do so!). Beyond this, events looking at a range of issues including business, trade, universities, etc, saw a number of Tory MPs receptive to the arguments that Government should maintain a relatively open approach to immigration in the future. Although the Government is sticking to the net migration target, there seems to be little confidence in this approach, and active concern among some that it could deter the ‘international talent’ that the UK will continue to need.
The job for activists will be to try and insert human rights into the conversation, calling for better rules which protect worker and family rights, and reform of the way that the immigration system treats those who try to come and live here. But contrary to appearances, we may find more common ground than we think with some Conservative MPs and influencers.
- Some backbench Conservative MPs and thinktanks are actively sympathetic to calls for a fair, humane immigration policy after Brexit.
It is clear that some businesses, Tory members, thinktanks and candidates are considerably more receptive to rights-based messages than the national policy debate suggests. Proposals made at one fringe meeting that, for example, low-paid EEA workers should be subject to tied visas after Brexit were roundly criticised as opening the door to bonded labour and exploitation. It is likely that the worst Home Office impulses would be vehemently opposed by some moderates in the Conservative party if they can marshal the right arguments and evidence.
More widely, MPs and influencers across the party are currently panicking about looking ‘pale, stale and male’ in the wake of the June general election. There is a strong awareness that other parties are capturing youth, graduate and BME votes, and some sense that a toxic and polarised immigration debate may have played a role in the Tories slide in popularity. Some, particularly among 2015/2017 intake MPs, are now looking to revamp the Tory party and show that it is open to the future and able to represent a modern, diverse Britain.
Tribal politics as usual will not be able to take advantage of these opportunities. But for those campaigners looking to make gains on immigration in the coming months, there are chinks of light pointing towards new allies and spheres of influence at a time of intense political flux.