In his first major interview since becoming home secretary, Sajid Javid underlined his desire to be his own man and to emerge from the shadow of Theresa May’s six years at the Home Office, from which his predecessor Amber Rudd never really escaped.
Mr Javid told BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show that Ms May’s “hostile environment” strategy towards illegal immigration would be replaced by a “compliant environment” one; a recognition that the climate contributed to the Windrush scandal, which he described as his most urgent priority. The home secretary made clear his sympathy for MPs and cabinet ministers pushing for the relaxation of visa restrictions which prevent the NHS from hiring the doctors from overseas it desperately needs. The prime minister is the barrier to a more sensible approach.
Unfortunately, Mr Javid felt unable to part company with the prime minister when he was asked about her discredited and arbitrary target to reduce annual net migration below 100,000. He spoke about bringing down immigration to sustainable levels over the next few years. When pressed about his personal commitment to the target, he insisted the Tories were “happy” with their manifesto at last year’s general election, which said the party’s “objective” is to reduce annual net migration to “the tens of thousands”. Mr Javid gave the impression of being far from happy about inheriting this target. His endorsement of it was decidedly lukewarm. It seems that Ms May is refusing to drop it, even though the overwhelming majority of her cabinet do not believe in it or believe it will ever be hit. The Independent has highlighted its flaws in our Drop the Target campaign with the Open Britain group.
To his credit, Mr Javid empathised with those arguing for international students to be taken out of the migration figures, saying their inclusion created a “perception problem”. He promised to look again at this issue. Again, an obstinate Ms May is out of step with her cabinet, and this policy should surely be buried soon.
The target should be too. It was set by David Cameron in 2010 but has been overtaken by dramatic events. After Brexit, the UK will need EU migrants for many jobs British workers do not want to do, and will have to offer more access to people from countries such as India in order to secure trade deals. By sending a signal that migrants are not welcome, the target could harm British business at a critical time.
EU migration has fallen sharply since the referendum, two years ago this month; fewer EU citizens are coming and some are returning home. Overall, annual net migration is down from its peak of 336,000 in 2015 to 244,000 on the latest figures. Public concern about immigration, ruthlessly exploited by the Leave campaign, has fallen in parallel. It is no longer seen as the most important issue facing the country, as it was at the time of the referendum; today, people are most concerned about the NHS and Brexit.
Opinion has also shifted inside the Conservative Party. Those who want to ditch the migration target range from Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, to Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Brexit champion at the other end of the party’s spectrum. They do not exactly have much else in common.
May allies claim that abandoning the target might send a signal that she and the country are “soft” on immigration. But no one would accuse her of that; being tough on it is one of her hallmarks. The unflashy prime minister also prides herself for being “straight” with people. It would be more honest to drop the migration target rather than stick stubbornly to paying lip service to it, while it withers slowly on the vine.
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