What on earth is Theresa May playing at? As Home Secretary she vowed to cut net immigration down to the ‘tens of thousands,’ only to see it increase to a record high of 330,000. A bit embarrassing: the slogans that used to adorn Tory conferences boasting ‘immigration down’ have been quietly removed, and replied by the fictional achievement ‘deficit eliminated’. If I were her, I'd just drop the whole thing.
Instead, she chooses this conference to inform us that the immigration she has presided over is bad for Britain, bad for our social cohesion. In her words:
'When immigration is too high, when the pace of change is too fast, it’s impossible to build a cohesive society. It’s difficult for schools and hospitals and core infrastructure like housing and transport to cope. And we know that for people in low-paid jobs, wages are forced down even further while some people are forced out of work altogether….Britain does not need net migration in the hundreds of thousands every year. The evidence shows that while there are benefits of selective and controlled immigration, at best the net economic and fiscal effect of high immigration is close to zero. So there is no case, in the national interest, for immigration of the scale we have experienced over the last decade.'
You rather expect a 'So vote Ukip!' at the end of this: the Home Secretary is laying into her own record. Even more embarrassingly, the Tories have no plans that lead us to believe that they’ll do any better on immigration: so these problems that Mrs May outlines will get worse.
Personally, I disagree with her that immigration is such a bad thing – in fact I think it has been a huge success story. Britain integrates immigrants better than anyone else in Europe, through the melting pot of work, and I think that’s one of the best things about our country. It seems Mrs May disagrees.
But what's she up to? Is she positioning herself for Brexit, arguing that we need the ability to repel EU immigrants? Positioning herself for the leadership of the Tories? (Or Ukip?) Or is this an attempt to reach out to the (many) voters who are concerned about immigration to say the Tories she feels their pain. But whatever was in her mind, she has got this wrong - and badly wrong. Zac Goldsmith is about to fight a Mayoral election in London, a city where a third of voters are immigrants. He's the son of a billionaire, up against the son of an immigrant. His biggest problem? The idea that Tories are the nasty party, who much don't much like immigrants. An impression that May has just reenforced.
And it was May who infamously branded the Tories as "the nasty party" - a label that has stuck. Now she's retoxifying, with a profoundly ungenerous speech that does Britain a disservice.
But I’ll say this for her: politicians are notoriously slow to apologise for what they have done. Today, the Home Secretary is – in effect – apologising for what she’s about to do: let immigration continue at levels she regards as harmful.