Prime Minister Theresa May should drop her immigration pledge

Christian May
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Theresa May Announces A General Election
May's migration targets will create a political headache (Source: Getty)

Among the many reasons people had for voting to leave the European Union, regaining control of immigration policy features high on the list.

It’s far too simplistic to see last summer’s vote simply as an anti-immigration cry, and certainly inaccurate to interpret it as the result of an anti-immigrant sentiment.

Repatriating democratic control over immigration policy was, for a large section of Brexit-backers, just as important as any move to reduce the overall number. Indeed, plenty of Leavers wish to retain a liberal approach to immigration. The reality is that the government will face competing pressures in this area: balancing the needs of business and the health of the economy with a political commitment to reducing the overall numbers.

Read more: Former Cameron advisor: May's views on immigration are "restricted"

Overhauling immigration policy is set to be one of the most complex areas of Britain’s post-Brexit endeavours, as a new report from the Institute for Government makes clear today.

The unofficial think tank of the civil service has warned that the policy area is so complex that there is no way the government can get a new immigration system up and running by the time the UK actually leaves the EU, and that EU freedom of movement will essentially have to continue for several years beyond the point of departure.

Read more: This bank boss has admitted there is more to Brexit talks than passporting

In addition to the practicalities of devising a new regime, Brexit creates a mammoth administrative task when it comes to processing the 3m EU nationals currently resident in the UK. Alongside this, there are questions about sector-specific quotas, non-EU migration and visa reform.

All of this presents a political headache for May, who has doubled-down on her desire to reduce net migration “to the tens of thousands.”

Read more: Immigration "is not about the numbers" says cabinet minister

The previous government clung to this absurd ambition (without ever coming close to achieving it) and Theresa May is now carrying the torch for a policy that would have a profoundly negative effect on the UK’s economy and international reputation.

May ought to go into this election having dropped the pledge to bring about a reduction to the tens of thousands. She’s going to need all the breathing space she can get in the coming years, and tying her hands in this area will not be worth the price.

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