Drop the Target: Brexit Britain needs a flexible leader, but Theresa May thinks intransigence is her selling point

The Prime Minister has no intention of dropping her immigration target – despite the fact that it has never been met, has no merit in principle, and is likely to damage the economy

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The Independent Online

After the hints and nudges, the Tories have blinked.

Last month, Culture Secretary Karen Bradley said of the immigration issue: “It’s not about putting numbers on it… What we need is to have the right people, to attract the brightest and the best.” Then, on Sunday, Home Secretary Amber Rudd refused to be drawn on whether the Conservatives would commit once again to cutting net migration to the “tens of thousands”. The party’s manifesto would not, she said, “be identical to the last one”.

And yet, for all the clues to the contrary, today we learn that the party has no intention of dropping a target that has never been met, has no merit in principle and is more likely to damage the economy than boost it. Speaking on the campaign trail, Theresa May confirmed she would continue to place considerable emphasis on bringing net inward migration down to “sustainable levels”, adding: “we believe that is in the tens of thousands.”

Perhaps the Conservative manifesto will reveal a moderately more flexible approach than was indicated by May’s words. But on the face of it, she is simply playing to a familiar crowd by readopting a headline policy which symbolises the worst instincts of those who see Brexit as primarily a debate about immigration.

Indeed, in case there was any doubt, she directly referred to Britain’s EU withdrawal when confirming her intentions, noting that bringing migrant numbers down would be possible “when we have control of our borders”. 

Ironically, May noted in her speech to supporters in Harrow that one reason for setting a migration cap was the pressure immigration can place on public services. That is true up to a point, but it is also thanks to migrant workers that the NHS functions at all. The same could be said of parts of the service sector and in relation to agricultural work. To set the desires of the parochial Tory right above the actual needs of the country is myopic to say the least.

It is also further evidence that, despite commanding leads in the polls, the Tories’ election campaign is underpinned by a surprising degree of suspicion – about voter intention, internal back-biting and the motives of opponents.

We saw it last week in the Prime Minister’s bizarre attack on European Commission officials, who she said were seeking to meddle in the outcome of the general election. If the Conservatives’ next trick is to stick by impossible promises not to cut taxes then we’ll know they’re in full-on paranoia mode.

When it comes to the Tories and Europe, it has ever been thus: centrists perennially unnerved by right-wingers into taking harder lines than they might have liked. And since last year’s referendum vote, those on the right of the party are plainly in the ascendency. 

Theresa May says she needs a mandate as big as Macron's to negotiate Brexit properly

The paradox is that now more than ever Britain needs to be governed by a party that has the flexibility to adapt to fast-moving events. If the Brexit negotiations are to be fruitful and if the years that follow are not to be deeply painful, pragmatism must win out over daft targets or other pointless pet promises that appeal to core voters but potentially tie ministerial hands at key points in the future.

Last week’s disastrous outing for Ukip in the local elections might have imbued the Conservative leadership with confidence for the bigger ballot box test next month. Judging by today’s renewal of the failed migration cap pledge, it seems in fact that Tory HQ has simply been convinced of the importance of wearing Ukip’s clothes in order to ensure that voters don’t swing back to Paul Nuttall and his chums. As Nigel Farage noted smugly at the weekend, May now uses “exactly the same words and phrases I have been using for 20 years”. 

Despite recent opinion polls putting the Conservatives between 15 and 22 percentage points ahead of Labour, the Prime Minister is behaving in a way which suggests she is nervous of taking a sizable Commons majority for granted. And yet the more she talks herself into a hard Brexit headlock, the more important it is to ensure that she doesn’t get the parliamentary free hand she desires.

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