Seriously, why won’t Theresa May ditch the ‘tens of thousands’ immigration target?

The pledge is expected to make an appearance in the Conservative manifesto


Today’s Tory manifesto is pegged to include yet another commitment to reducing net immigration to the tens of thousands.

This absurd target was first introduced by David Cameron in 2010, and — as well as justifying a litany of regressive and racist policy proposals — has caused the Conservatives nothing but headaches since. Indeed, it’s rumoured that the number was arrived at by mistake when Damian Green blurted it out in a Newsnight interview.

May’s biographer Rosa Prince claims that:

“The mention of the figure apparently took both Cameron and May by surprise, but they were reluctant to publicly row back from it, meaning it stuck, despite many within government, on both sides of the party divide, considering it both unobtainable and undesirable.”

One of the target’s most trenchant opponents around the cabinet table was George Osborne, and disputes over the target are at the heart of the well-known animosity between the former chancellor and the now prime minister.

In his new role as Evening Standard editor, Osborne has seized the opportunity to make the dispute public, writing in yesterday’s leader:

“It remains a mystery why the Prime Minister has recommitted her party to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands a year. She didn’t need to make this politically rash and economically illiterate move. She was not the author of the pledge; David Cameron made it in opposition.”

The article (which Osborne presumably penned, although it’s written as ‘the voice of the paper’) goes on to claim that none of the senior members of May’s cabinet support the target.

So the question is a good one: why on earth is May still sticking with a policy ambition that’s unachievable, would be destructive even if it were achieved, and is extremely unpopular even among her top team?

Cameron’s inability to drop the target is just about comprehensible. As he watched the catastrophic fall-out of Nick Clegg’s broken promise on tuition fees, he was afraid to go back on his word. But May has already conducted about-turns on plenty of Cameron-era policies — why not cut this millstone from around her neck?

Prince sees two possibilities:

“There has been much debate over the question of whether she was philosophically committed to lowering immigration, or if she viewed hitting the ‘tens of thousands’ target as a kind of grown-up homework, a commitment which was in the Conservative manifesto and so to be considered an unbreakable bond.”

Either one of these possibilities is troubling. Under the first scenario, May is in fact an anti-immigrant zealot of the most UKIP-ish kind, who will continue to pursue reactionary anti-immigrant policies.

If the second — which seems somewhat more likely — then Britain is saddled with a prime minister incapable of changing her mind or her policies, even when all the evidence shows it’s required. And the greater the opposition, the more May will dig in her heels.

Indeed, if Osborne’s goal was to get rid of the target, publicly embarrassing the prime minister is the worst thing he could have done. May and her aides are thin-skinned and vindictive, and don’t seem to have a problem with harming the country to try and prove a point.

In seven years, the tens of thousands target has already played a key role in taking Britain out of the EU, it has fueled the flames of anti-immigrant sentiment, and justified reckless and irrational policy.

In 2022 it will have done far more damage again — and still won’t come anywhere close to being met.

Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. Find her on Twitter.

See also: ‘Drop the Target’ campaigners call on government to abandon ‘tens of thousands’ migration pledge

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