My column for ConHome: The immigration choice for the Conservatives – pro-business, or pro-UKIP?

by Stephen Tall on March 13, 2014

con home cartoonHere’s my latest The Other Side column for ConservativeHome, published here on Tuesday. Who’d have thought a column talking about immigration, Europe and Ukip would get their readership so exercised? My thanks as ever to the site’s editors, Paul Goodman and Mark Wallace, for giving a Lib Dem space to provoke – constructively, I hope.

Maybe, just maybe, James Brokenshire has done the Conservatives a favour. His speech last week – blaming “the wealthy metropolitan elite who wanted cheap tradesmen and services” for busting the Tories’ nonsensical net migration target – was so comically inept that it might mark the nadir of his party’s flirtation with the Little Englander vote.

If you’re the new junior immigration minister – someone who only got the job because your predecessor, a fellow Tory MP, Mark Harper, discovered he’d accidentally hired an undocumented migrant as a cleaner – you might think twice about making your first speech an attack on people like, well, Mark Harper.

And if the person who appointed you to the job, your boss, the Prime Minister, has employed foreign nannies – meaning he was guilty, apparently, of “forcing down wages and displacing local people from the job market” – you might think thrice. In fact, it would have been better for James Brokenshire to keep on thinking until it was too late to give his speech and he had at last come to his senses.

His lurch into anti-immigration protectionism brought that well-known bastion of liberal-leftyism, the Institute of Directors, out swinging. Its Director General Simon Walker lambasted Mr Brokenshire’s comments as “feeble and pathetic”, declaring:

“The UK is an open, trading country that benefits from the skills and ideas of migrants. We will not become more prosperous by closing our borders to talented individuals and entrepreneurs from across the world. This speech seems to be more about political positioning and less about what is good for the country.”

The Tories’ immigration problems started well before Mr Brokenshire – “the startled mole of a junior minister [who] morphed into an demented ferret” as Matthew Parris brilliantly described him – committed political hara-kiri. David Cameron’s determination to reduce net migration was always an odd pledge. As Vince Cable once wryly mused, “When you think about the logic of it: net immigration means reducing the number of people coming in or increasing the number of British people emigrating. Is that the policy objective? I don’t know…”.

We now know the Tories have failed: net migration is up. But, fair’s fair, I’ll say this for the Tories’ determination to deliver on their target: they have done their utmost, no matter what the cost to business.

Let’s take higher education as an example. It’s one of the UK’s most successful export markets, with students travelling here were worth an estimated £13 billion in 2012, expected to rise to £16 billion over the next five years. Yet the Tories take great pride in the fact that they have increased regulation of this market in order to cut student visa applications by 29% since 2010.

This is Tory red-tape strangling British business to try and hit an entirely arbitrary target. Small wonder, then, that that other bastion of well-known liberal-leftyism, The Economist, 18 months ago labelled the Tories’ immigration policy “barmy”, arguing that it is “crippling business and the economy”, and urged “Wake up, Mr Cameron”.

This plea was echoed by yet another bastion of well-known liberal-leftyism (who knew there were so many?), the Centre for Entrepreneurs, which last week highlighted research showing migrant entrepreneurs are behind the creation of one in seven UK companies and that migrant-founded companies are responsible for creating 14 per cent of all jobs in small- and medium-seized firms. Its Director, Matt Smith, was unequivocal:

“The contribution of migrant entrepreneurs is, to be frank, breath-taking. Presented with such irrefutable evidence, it is now the responsibility of politicians of all parties to celebrate migrant entrepreneurs’ contributions and restate their commitment to maintaining pro-entrepreneurship immigration policies.”

The Conservative Party does, of course, have form when it comes to turning its back on free trade in the hope of electoral reward. At the start of the twentieth-century, Joseph Chamberlain and the Tariff Reform League were winning the argument among Tories for imposing  new trade barriers to protect British jobs. Chamberlain’s populism forced the Conservative Government under Balfour to strike a protectionist pose, defeated thanks to the free-trading Liberals’ landslide victory at the 1906 general election. The Tories banged the drum for protectionism again in 1923 under Stanley Baldwin; and once again they were checked by the free-trading  Liberals.

Wind the clock forward a hundred years and – once more unto the breach, dear friends! – it’s Liberals standing up for free and open trade while Conservatives cower at the threat posed by those latter-day protectionists, Ukip.

It’s been left to Nick Clegg, alone among the party leaders, to champion Britain’s continuing EU membership, laying down the gauntlet to Nigel Farage. As he pointed out in his speech to the party’s spring conference on Sunday:

“This isn’t about some starry eyed affection for the EU – of course it needs reform. But you can’t change it with one foot out the door. You change it by taking your place at the table – which is where you protect Britain’s national interest and promote our values too.”

Mr Clegg’s words rang a bell with me. Then I remembered. I’d read something very similar by John Cridland, Director-General of the CBI (also apparently now a well-known bastion of liberal-leftyism) responding to a survey showing eight out of 10 firms say the UK must stay in the EU:

“This sends a clear message that most CBI members, big and small, support UK membership of the EU. Firms want what is best for jobs and growth, and there is genuine concern that an exit would hit business investment and access to the world’s largest trading bloc. … Businesses do have some serious concerns about the EU, but ultimately they want the UK inside the tent winning the argument for reform.”

We have, it seems, gone back to the future. It is now left to the Lib Dems to stick up for Britain as an open, trading, pro-business nation, while the Conservatives race Ukip in a headlong rush to protectionist isolationism.

Your call, guys. You can heed the vacuous populism of James Brokenshire. Or you can listen to liberal-leftys like me, the Institute of Directors, The Economist,  the Centre for Entrepreneurs, and the CBI and embrace competitive markets that promote growing prosperity for all. Which will it be?

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