For as long as the Tory party has been committed to a net migration target in the tens of thousands, it’s been rowing about it.
David Cameron championed the idea in the 2010 election and backed the target during his coalition with the Liberal Democrats.
Vince Cable (as business secretary) never missed a chance to distance his party from the idea, stressing repeatedly that it was a Conservative policy and not a government position.
The target was missed (spectacularly) during the 2010-2015 parliament and the Tories recommitted to it in the 2015 election and again, under Theresa May, in June’s election.
As home secretary, Theresa May was a staunch defender of the policy and she appears to have lost none of her enthusiasm for the target having entered Downing St. George Osborne, as chancellor, was always against it, as were almost all economists, business groups and universities. Indeed, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) told Cameron & co back in 2015 that the government could either hit its growth target or its net migration target, but not both.
In other words, economic growth would be dependent on maintaining levels of immigration significantly higher than the tens of thousands. The shape of British politics has changed a lot since 2015 but the truth behind the OBR’s observation has not.
And yet here we are, seven years after the Tories first cooked up the migration target policy and having never come close to achieving it, the immigration minister has just reiterated the government’s commitment to it.
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However, the current darling of the Tory party membership, Ruth Davidson, has returned from her summer holiday and questioned whether the target should be dropped. She has called for a rational discussion, rather than “easy slogans”.
In particular, she suggests the time has come to remove international students from the migration figures. This is eminently sensible, but won’t have gone down well in Downing St.
Alas, until the government faces up to the folly of a net migration target that cannot be met (and would cause economic harm if it were) these arguments will continue to bubble up, and the next person to seize the issue might well be closer to the heart of government that the Scottish Tory leader.