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Rishi Sunak walks right into a lose-lose immigration policy

Britain’s new prime minister notably promised “integrity, professionalism and accountability” at Downing Street. But with the (re)appointment of Suella Braverman as Home Secretary, Rishi Sunak has opened himself to the charge that he failed at the first hurdle.

The Home Secretary is a darling of the party’s Brexiteer wing. The barrister daughter of immigrants, she shot up the ranks of the Tory party to become attorney general under Boris Johnson. She is also a former chair of the European Research Group that doomed Theresa May’s Brexit deal and premiership and helped elevate Johnson to prime minister.

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In her own leadership campaign this summer, Braverman pledged to cut taxes and restore efficiency to government, suspend Britain’s net-zero 2050 target, end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights and deliver “Brexit opportunities.” At the Tory Party conference, she described the prospect of seeing a front-page photograph of a flight deporting illegal immigrants as her “obsession.”

When that leadership campaign fizzled, she backed Liz Truss’s and got rewarded with the Home Office. In that earlier stint, Braverman threatened to derail trade talks with India when she complained that Indians were the migrant group that most overstayed their visas. She denounced “Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati” as responsible for disruption caused by protestors.

A day later, she was forced to resign for sending a confidential ministerial document to an MP over her private email. There are conflicting accounts of how serious this security breach was and whether Braverman’s apology and resignation should draw a line under the affair. Unsurprisingly, Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper has demanded a full investigation. More unusually, former Conservative Party Chair Jake Berry, who was sacked by Sunak, has publicly accused Braverman of “multiple breaches” of the ministerial code, significantly worse than the minor oversight that Braverman claims.

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Whether Berry is genuinely outraged at Braverman’s breach or just really unhappy that he’s been kicked out of the tent is unclear but perhaps beside the point. His intervention keeps the issue live. Is an apology all it takes to hold a job in Sunak’s cabinet after a breach of the ministerial code? Expect Labour to keep that theme going. Braverman’s appointment speaks to Sunak’s desire to keep a noisy right-wing faction onside as he seeks to rebuild party unity and make some difficult economic decisions. But it increasingly looks like a lose-lose. In keeping her, he signs up to an illiberal immigration policy that undermines his broader economic vision and Britain’s global standing. In shuffling her out, he’d anger the right of his party and confirm suspicions that her appointment showed poor judgment. Truss reportedly wanted higher immigration numbers baked into growth forecasts to give the government more room for tax cuts, while Braverman wants to return to the Tories’ old pledge to reduce immigrant numbers to the “tens of thousands,” which was never realistic. Sunak is likely to clash with Braverman too. Though he took a tough line on immigration during the summer leadership race and does not want limits lifted, he’s resisting setting targets.

That leaves the party trapped in a policy that neither appeases anti-immigrant factions nor serves the economy. Despite a new points-based immigration system, the Home Office is struggling to deal with backlogs, and sponsors are finding the process bureaucratic and expensive. Businesses have been lobbying hard for higher immigration numbers as Britain faces a major worker shortage. Hospitality, construction and other industries say staffing shortages are costing them billions of pounds in lost business (which also means lost tax revenue for the Treasury).

Immigration has distributional effects that can’t be ignored, but higher levels of migration would likely provide a modest boost to GDP growth; and immigrants bring fiscal benefits, paying in more to the Treasury than they receive in benefits. Often the bigger benefits come with the second generation, too.

Yet although public attitudes toward immigration are more pragmatic and nuanced these days, the Tory view seems to be that nobody ever lost votes by promising to reduce the numbers.

Still, the Home Office’s signature policy on that front — a scheme to deport asylum-seekers arriving in boats to Rwanda — could prove an embarrassment for Sunak. The policy has been subject to a number of legal challenges and is unlikely to have much impact on migrant numbers. Britain’s international standing won’t be helped either by Sunak threatening to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights (after the Strasbourg-based court that enforces the convention intervened to prevent the first deportation plane to Rwanda).

And all of that is before considering the rising rates of violent crime and sexual offences that the Home Office will be expected to address. Should the controversy over her resignation drag on, Sunak might be forced into an earlier reshuffle than he was counting on.

A cynic might suggest that’s the whole point. The Home Office is often known as the graveyard of political careers (Theresa May’s long stint there before becoming prime minister is a notable exception). A Machiavellian reading might be that Sunak’s appointment is a gesture to the Braverman wing of the party but one that gives himself an out in the event that she stumbles badly.

If so, that may be too clever by half. If she fails, Sunak’s judgment will be called into question. Far from appeasing the party’s right, Braverman’s appointment would only whet its appetite. Either way, these two children of immigrants have set sail for an immigration policy that looks certain to backfire.

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