As Theresa May’s premiership sputtered and wheezed ungracefully towards its overdue collapse, there was a sense of inevitability about the impending doom of the Conservative party.
The air around Westminster hung heavy with the miasma of socialism, the natural party of government seeming somehow overburdened by the strain of nine years of tumult and chaos at the heart of government.
It is to Boris Johnson’s credit that he has managed not only to stem the misery but inject a renewed sense of purpose and optimism, from the heart of Whitehall to the local activists.
Every major decision, from purging the May cabinet to bringing Dominic Cummings into the fold, has set the tone for an exciting new chapter in politics (exciting in a good way, which makes for a pleasant change).
In policy terms, Boris has started on the right foot. In addition to funding pledges for policing and healthcare, the prime minister used a Facebook Live address to announce a relaxation of the laws allowing scientists to work in the UK. This was a decidedly anti–Mayite move, both in style and substance. This common-sense change would have been instantly rejected in the previous, dogmatically anti-immigration regime.
It inspires hope that, for the first time this side of the new millennium, we might have a Conservative government unafraid to admit the positives of immigration. Which is why the government should waste no time in repudiating the recent Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) report calling for a hike in the migrant salary threshold.
At present, non-EU migrants are expected to earn at least £30,000 per year in order to qualify for a tier 2 general work visa. This is already a substantial hurdle that prevents British industry from identifying and recruiting top talent at the earliest stages of their careers and drives away foreign students after years of contributing to the UK economy.
Despite this, the CSJ has called for the threshold to rise to £36,700, as well as extending these rules to include EU migrants. It is hard to understate how damaging this policy would be if implemented.
An Australian MBA graduate offered a lucrative role in the City would have to turn that job down and take their expertise back down under – or to another competitor. A Saudi expat looking to contribute to the country they call home by working in a low-paying field like journalism or charitable work would be unable to do so, lest they find themselves on a plane home. A Venezuelan policy expert interested in working for the CSJ? Perish the thought.
The May government would have embraced this recommendation, and those of us who believe in the benefits of immigration are now left waiting to discover what view the new administration will take.
The early signs are encouraging, but Priti Patel’s appointment to the Home Office complicates any predictions about the new line on immigration.
But perhaps this is all for nought. The public are inordinately hostile to immigration, or so the conventional wisdom goes. The conclusive economic case for deregulation is irrelevant because we are an insular, unwelcoming people. The Brexit vote is conclusive proof of that, and any government preparing itself for a looming election would never antagonise voters in this way.
These are common misconceptions. In fact, international students, who already fail to gain tier 2 visas in many cases, are very popular with the public. As are skilled labourers, who are the primary recipients of the tier 2 visa, and refugees. The public are also very receptive to high levels of immigration, skilled or non, from developed nations such as France, Germany, Sweden, and Japan.
The room to manoeuvre for the government is substantial, allowing us to enhance our economy without needlessly shutting our doors to talent from across the globe.
Of particular note, free movement between the CANZUK nations (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK) is supported by two-thirds of the public. Free movement with the previously mentioned countries would be similarly welcomed, though admittedly less emphatically.
Perhaps the government is unwilling to fully commit to this vision of a global-facing, cosmopolitan Brexit Britain by chasing free movement with CANZUK, Japan, and beyond. But it should at least be willing to reject calls for punitive, unwarranted attacks on skilled immigrants that would damage our economy as well as the lives of those it targets.