The end of political reigns – when they finally come – tend to be remorselessly uncomplicated. John Major failed to craft Thatcherism with a human face. New Labour was exposed as a vacuous, even sinister, movement based on lies and spin. And now the Tories are set to be booted out ultimately because they have betrayed the country on immigration.
The Conservatives know in their bones that it is over. No?10 has been keen to play down the implosion of its plan to send illegal immigrants to Rwanda. The argument goes that the Court of Appeal ruled against the Government’s policy last week on a mere detail about Rwanda’s immigrant processing standards; with a bit of diplomatic fudge from Kigali, it is claimed, the Supreme Court could be adequately reassured to overturn the ruling in Downing Street’s favour. This smacks of delusion. No doubt, the president of the Supreme Court, Lord Reed – who is said to be more sensitive to claims of “judicial overreach” than his predecessor, Lady Hale – will give the Government a fair hearing. But countering the judgment that Rwanda is not a safe third country will be no easy task.
And even if the Government does win at the Supreme Court, it will come much too late. After 13 years in power, the Tories need to go into the next election with not merely a colourful plan for tackling the small boats, but a demonstrable record of doing so. The party’s last hope of building the kind of populist momentum that voters might think twice about jeopardising with a change of administration was a coherent (if ever so cynical) one. It has now been vanquished. The Rwanda policy is dead – and with it any pretence of a Tory plan for getting control of the country’s borders. It is a similar story with legal migration. The Conservatives came to power in 2010 promising to bring net migration down to the tens of thousands. With the figure now over 600,000 a year, the scale of its failure is so preposterous as to verge on parody. True, Boris Johnson did try to edge away from the vow, pledging instead to get a grip on migration by erecting a strict Australian-style points system. But the post-Brexit regime is a self-contradicting shambles. Higher processing fees are counteracted by low salary thresholds for visa sponsorship. Loopholes in the student visa programmes created a backdoor for the effective continuation of low to mid-skilled mass migration. Retail giants have been thrilled to find that they are essentially free to import as many South Asian software developers to run their vast new warehouses as they like. Meanwhile, the Home Office’s flagship “Global Talent” visa scheme to fast-track the applications of world-leading scientists has been an embarrassing flop, receiving next to no applications amid uncertainty over science funding.
Some on the Right might charitably commend backbench calls this week for the Government to cut net migration by two thirds as a heroic last-ditch effort to avoid political carnage. But these are the panicked spasms of a party in its death throes. Tory MPs know full well that such a move, in the short term at least, would risk crashing the economy as well as the social care system and the NHS. They are in utter denial that the party missed its chance to reduce immigration in a steady, sustainable fashion. And now it’s game over. Within the Westminster bubble, one hears all too often the fatalistic argument that the problems of the Channel crossings and mass immigration were always too intractable to solve.
That might make MPs feel better about their failure, but it is simply not true. With the right attitude, the Tories could have fixed both. But they failed to grasp, upon coming to power, that their role was not merely to “clear up New Labour’s mess”. It was to address what has become nothing short of a civilisational challenge in the West: the implosion of an entire model of economic and political governance. After the financial crisis, the consensus that wealthy countries could continue to grow, financing expansive public services with a consumption-based economic model fuelled by cheap credit and cheap labour, came crashing down. The Syrian civil war, meanwhile, exposed the fact that the whole global refugee system is defunct. More people are eligible to claim asylum in Western countries in line with international human rights law than such nations will ever realistically be willing or able to take. Brexit was meant to be the great wake-up call that, in Britain, the status quo is not just economically terminal but politically unsustainable.
The Tories could have risen to this challenge. They could have done a serious deal with France some time ago to help nip the small boats issue in the bud. Paris mandarins have been sidemouthing for years that, with France processing twice as many asylum seekers as the UK, Emmanuel Macron would only be willing to step up on illegal boats if the UK agreed to take a larger share through legal channels. The Tories have had plenty of opportunity to bite the bullet and strike such a deal, making it more politically palatable with a robust plan to reduce the country’s dependence on economic migrants over time. And contrary to widespread defeatism, they could have weaned the UK economy off its reliance on mass migration as well. They just decided that it was too hard and too expensive. Training more doctors and nurses and improved retention through reform of the NHS comes to mind; as does adapting Britain’s obsolete apprenticeship programme to one that befits a burgeoning services superpower. Eight years after David Cameron’s pledge to end the welfare “merry-go-round”, the Tories have had ample chance to tackle two of the biggest obstacles to getting millions of people off benefits and into work: the wreck of the social care system and an over-regulated, unaffordable childcare sector. Instead, bewitched by the Blairite playbook, the Conservatives convinced themselves that their great task was not to reform a broken system but simply to manage it with a vague air of competence that they could continue to dominate the centre ground. Its leaders arrogantly gambled that the party could neglect the immigration quandary, instead riding on its reputation as the party of sound money. They called it wrong and they have gone bust. And many will think: good riddance.