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It is fitting that the seventh anniversary of the EU Referendum on 23 June should arrive amid a new Boris Johnson-centric crisis in the Conservative Government. This political theatre reflects how Brexit and its failure have destabilised the ruling party, making it increasingly likely that it will face defeat in 2024.
It is too early to second-guess the precise form of the right-wing alignment this may cause – a lot will depend on how sweeping a Labour victory is. It is easy to mock Reform UK’s Leader Richard Tice, Laurence Fox’s Reclaim Party, the recent National Conservatism Conference and the scramble for influence of would-be gurus Matthew Goodwin and Dominic Cummings, each scoping visions of a new party to replace the Conservatives.
But there are potentially more serious moves: Suella Braverman’s constant positioning from the Tory far-right, and Nigel Farage’s noises off which could presage his return to active politics.
What seems certain about the right’s future direction is that anti-immigration politics will be at its heart – as it was in Brexit and the evolution which made it possible.
The spectre of the ‘Great Replacement’ was never far from the surface at NatCon, Braverman has made ultra-hostility to refugees her USP, and Rishi Sunak – that he is imagined as a ‘centrist’ shows us how far the Tories have moved – is putting “stopping the boats” at the heart of his pre-election campaign.
The irony is that Sunak is presiding over the highest ever-recorded net migration figures, when reducing these to the “tens of thousands” was totemic for Brexit. This target from the Cameron years – which Johnson was supposed to have buried in 2020 – is once again a serious embarrassment.
Some influences on the figures – like large numbers of Ukrainians and Hong Kongers – are likely to prove temporary and another cohort – international students – could plausibly be removed from the calculations (but so far the only change is that their dependents will be physically blocked). But Sunak is increasingly being challenged on the issue from the further right.
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The critical factor, of course, is increased non-EU immigration – in principle, anathema to many Leave voters but which is substantially a consequence of Brexit.
The Brexit myth is that it was mainly a liberal nationalist, free-market project, but it was only made popular when it was fused with anti-immigration politics. It was Nigel Farage’s UKIP which pioneered this approach, which has allowed too many commentators to pigeonhole racism as a fringe element of Brexit.
Yet Dominic Cummings, for one, took note of Farage’s success, and during the referendum campaign his official, Johnson-led, Vote Leave copied the anti-immigrant strategy, as did the Conservative press. It is now claimed that Johnson was uneasy about this – but he pocketed the gains and pivoted again to racism when he needed to mobilise the Conservative base for the premiership.
It has helped the Brexiters fend off accusations of racism that the people they racialised were mostly Muslims (‘a religion not a race’) and eastern Europeans (who are ‘white’). But there was little difference, tone apart, between Farage’s ‘perfect right to be concerned if a group of Romanian people move in next door’ and the ‘if you want a n*****r for a neighbour, vote Labour’ of the notorious Tory campaign half a century earlier.
Underplaying Brexit’s racism involves denial of the harms that it has done.
The ‘red line’ which it dictated – ending freedom of movement – has not only removed rights, erected barriers, divided families, restricted the lives of generations of young people, damaged public services and determined the UK’s withdrawal from the Single Market and all the resulting harms. It has also made Brexit the biggest victory for organised racism in modern British history.
Where Enoch Powell failed to send black people back to the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent after his 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, his acolyte Farage succeeded – with Johnson’s help – in sending back the Europeans.
The latest figures show net out-migration of EU citizens, when of course there was large net in-migration before 2016. It is a rewriting of history to laud this major reversal, and the resulting increases in Commonwealth immigrants to which it has led, as a rare case of Leavers doing what they promised and ‘rebalancing’ immigration. Despite the rhetoric they used to lure ethnic minority voters, they had no serious intention of increasing non-European immigration – indeed they never had any serious plans.
Rather, the Johnson and Sunak Governments have adapted practically to labour shortages which driving away European workers have exacerbated.
Because increased non-European immigration was a Brexit ‘benefit’, until recently Brexiters seemed to have agreed that – rather than continue to obsess over net migration – refugee arrivals which they termed ‘illegal’ migration (although legal under international law) was a more promising focus for political racism.
Amid today’s hype about small boats from Sunak and Braverman, it should be recalled that it was Farage who pioneered this campaign, getting himself filmed on the Channel shore in 2020 when, because of the pandemic, regular migration was stalling.
It was after this initiative that the Conservatives and their supporters in the press started talking up the same moral panic. Ever since, they have been playing a risky game – trying to keep ahead of Farage.
On the one hand, they have exaggerated the ‘threat’ to renew their appeal to the racist, anti-immigrant, core of Brexit and Tory voters. On the other, they have exaggerated their ability to reduce the number of crossings – without, of course, providing proper safer routes for refugees to apply for asylum in the UK.
The complicated love-hate relationship of immigrants from former colonies with the British Empire cannot be ignored if lessons are to be learned in post-Brexit Britain, says Hardeep Matharu
The danger for Sunak is obviously that Farage, or even one of the less capable right-wing entrepreneurs jostling for position, will call him out more effectively than they have done so far, on net migration as well as on small boats. From his point of view, however, there seems to be little choice – even though voters are less concerned about immigration than they used to be.
Sunak needs to hold on to the large minority of voters who are strongly anti-immigration, for fear of them swinging to Labour or Reform and turning the Conservative defeat into a wipe-out.
It is therefore likely that, with the Tories on the ropes, the 2024 election will see much more use of immigration than in 2019. Sunak’s constant reversion to his small boats policy, despite its barely working, makes it clear that he intends it to have a big role.
Whether this will work is another matter. More probably, today’s arguments are setting the terms of the battle on the right in the aftermath of defeat, when a rump Conservative Party and a revived radical-right will compete to blame Keir Starmer for immigration.