Theresa May must stick to her existing immigration pledge if she wants people to have confidence in her Brexit strategy

Theresa May must stick to her existing immigration pledge if she wants people to have confidence in her Brexit strategy

The American multi-Grammy award-winning singer Linda Ronstadt once said: “There should not be a question of legal or illegal immigration, we are all immigrants. No one’s illegal. They should just be able to come.”

This is a typical view of the cultural, media and political elite: I’m alright, Jack – big house, cleaners, nannies, chauffeurs and restaurant dinners. The advantages of the wealthy espousing equality, whilst they benefit from immigration more than the rest of us.

The British public hold a different view. They see the benefits of highly-skilled workers – those doctors who heal them, business owners they work for or even football players they cheer.

Decency and humanity has always been a strong, cultural vein in Britain’s national body. However, as many polls indicate, the British public want to see a reduction in low-skilled immigration as it just doesn’t offer the same benefits to them as highly-skilled workers do.

That is why the public are concerned about current levels of immigration.

With this in mind, Theresa May must retain her party’s pledge to bring down levels of migration to the tens of thousands.

The public mood on immigration has not changed. However, the difference between when that pledge was first made and now is huge: we are on course to leave the European Union and as a result, will gain full control over our borders once again.

This was not even considered as a possibility when David Cameron first made the same pledge. No one had faith in him to deliver it, but they do have faith in Theresa May, because – since the referendum result – she has committed to delivering a full Brexit, including withdrawal from the Single Market. As a result, they believe that she will bring down net immigration.

As a Prime Minister, Theresa May has to listen to advisers, civil servants and interested parties on a whole host of government policies. Immigration is no different and no doubt she has been lobbied by big business interests to maintain current levels of immigration post-Brexit.

No doubt she has also received advice from civil servants stating that her party’s existing manifesto pledge is still equally unachievable post-Brexit. She will have also received advice from advisers that removing international students from the migration numbers might be a quick fix to meeting her target.

I admit, in earlier days, I argued the same point: students bring in financial benefits for universities. I naively took the view that students come and then leave. The fact is most do, but a very large number every year do not leave and seek to remain in the UK indefinitely.

My view was wrong and I believe that we must keep student numbers in and address the areas of non-returning students.

Removing students from the numbers would be deeply disingenuous and misleading. Yes, the net number would be lower, but the amount of people entering the UK would remain the same. In reality, international students would still be studying in the UK, but just not accounted for. The aim of removing students from the numbers would be to persuade the public that immigration was considerably lower, when it actually wasn’t.

Rather than scrap the tens of thousands target in her new manifesto, Mrs May should embrace it with a policy-led solution.

When crunching the latest migration numbers, the largest chunk of inward immigration year on year is for work (294,000). This is the area that we must control and limit, in order to reduce levels. The realpolitik of the situation is that without controlling work migration, it is virtually impossible to reduce the net number without then cutting other types of immigration (e.g. asylum and students).

From my experiences, a wishy-washy attitude towards immigration will not be tolerated by a large chunk of the public, which define immigration as the most important issue, particularly in parts of Northern England – many of which are flirting with the idea of voting Conservative in June.  

Politically, Theresa May can take the strategic ground on immigration away from the other parties, if she holds steady on her party’s original pledge and puts together a comprehensive policy to do just that. Anything less will result in a loss of support and gradual loss of confidence in her Brexit strategy.

The Prime Minister has an amazing opportunity to rebuild public trust on immigration: retaining the original net migration pledge in her new manifesto will show she is serious about reducing immigration after the Brexit vote.

I’m not interested in looking in from the outside, banging the drum for why we need to reduce migration, without adding any value as to how we do so. That is why I drafted my ideas for a brand new immigration policy – a fair, flexible and forward-thinking policy – which will keep Britain open for business, rebuild trust and, most importantly, reduce net migration in line with the original Conservative manifesto pledge.

There is absolutely no shame in wanting to reduce migration, in line with the public mood. This is not about pulling up the drawbridge, but simply about control and rebuilding trust.

Immigration is a huge issue, one which should not be underestimated. Labour are lost, with no detail – so Theresa May’s party should capitalise and create some blue water between them and the rest of the field.