Skip to main content
Mile End Institute

Immigration was the most polarising issue of the last decade. Has Johnson’s first year seen a new centre-ground emerge? Sunder Katwala

What would “taking back control” mean for immigration?  That central question would determine how far the government would make its own choices about immigration in Boris Johnson’s first year as prime minister.

UK Parliament

Photograph of the Houses of Parliament at Westminster. 

In a year dominated by the Brexit stand-off, the snap General Election and the Covid-19 pandemic, immigration was further from the headlines than before. Yet the Johnson administration made more major policy decisions on immigration in its first 12 months than are usually made across a parliament.

Having been the most polarising issue of the previous decade, might the pattern of policy choices reveal the quiet emergence of a new centre-ground on immigration policy?

Ditching the net migration target

Boris Johnson’s first significant move on immigration policy came in his first 24 hours as Prime Minister, dropping the government’s flagship target to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands”.  Theresa May had championed the target for a decade as Home Secretary and then Prime Minister – yet she left office with net migration at 272,000. Though considered totemic in Westminster, the net migration target sank without trace. Few mourned a pledge that had proved impossible to keep.

Downing Street explained that Johnson did not want “to play a numbers game” on immigration. Ditching this one-size-fits-all target freed a new Prime Minister to argue for some flows of migration to rise as others fell. Johnson frequently declared that he wanted Britain to be “a giant magnet” for scientists from around the world, while arguing for reductions in low-skilled migration from the EU. The government significantly liberalised the rules on enabling more overseas students to work in the UK after graduation.

A new promise to cut the numbers

The Conservative manifesto in 2019 reflected Johnson’s self-image as a “balancer” on immigration. Its narrative was of a “balanced package of measures that is fair, firm and compassionate”, consciously cycling through the themes of “control” offered by an Australian-style points-based system; of “contribution” as ‘Global Britain’ welcomed skills that are needed; and “compassion” in protecting refugees, securing the status of Europeans in Britain, and acknowledging the shame of the Windrush scandal. A prominent new memorial would fully acknowledge the Windrush generation’s contribution.

Immigration, having fallen to the ninth most salient issue for voters, had a low campaign profile. Yet the Conservatives still made a significant policy shift during the campaign’s opening week, adding a commitment that “overall numbers would fall”, even after the manifesto had gone to print. Had the numbers game returned by the back door?

The post-Brexit system: what do points mean?

The Conservatives’ victory at the General Election ensured that Britain would leave the EU – and so gave the re-elected government ownership of the biggest immigration policy changes for over forty years. Free movement would end – but what would follow it?

The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) was asked to revisit the 2018 White Paper proposals. Its report in January 2020 proposed to liberalise non-EU work migration. The threshold for tier-two visas would fall from £30,000 to £25,6000, with no limit on numbers of economic migration visas above this salary threshold. For workers under 25, the salary threshold would be lower – starting at £20,500 – a policy announced so quietly that few have noticed.

The MAC proposals, fully accepted by the government, were broadly in line with public intuitions about different flows of migration, except in offering no route for social care visas. But with non-EU migration having risen since 2016, as EU migration fell, these policy choices were not designed to meet the campaign commitment to cut overall numbers.

Windrush, immigration and race

For decades after the Empire Windrush arrived in 1948, immigration and race relations were often treated as a fused issue. By 1990, most ethnic minorities were British-born and the post-2004 immigration debate focused on the arrival of white Europeans from Poland and accession states.  So the greater public separation of race and immigration was long overdue.

Yet the Windrush scandal showed how migration and race remain closely connected, particularly in immigration enforcement.  Wendy Williams’ Lessons Learned Review sets out why the Home Office must embark on the type of institutional and cultural reform which the Metropolitan Police attempted after the Macpherson report – and which this department has never attempted. The dramatic resignation of Permanent Secretary Phillip Rutnam, to bring a constructive dismissal claim, means it will do so under new management.

The prime minister spoke too, in his first Commons appearance, of his long-standing view that undocumented migrants who have lived in Britain long-term should be offered a route to legal status. There has been no significant move on this. The political risk of a high-profile ‘amnesty’ may prove prohibitive. The government could also review and simplify the existing routes to regularisation. The Prime Minister appeared surprised to hear, from select committee chair Stephen Timms, that current policy leaves many thousands of people with leave to remain without recourse to public services or funds.

An offer to Hong Kong

China’s new security laws in Hong Kong saw the UK government offer 350,000 British overseas nationals and 2.6 million others a special route to come to the UK, with a path to citizenship after six years. Remarkably, there has been unanimous support in the House of Commons – in stark contrast to the heated clash on the same subject between Paddy Ashdown and Norman Tebbit in 1990 - while polls showed public support spanning party and referendum tribes.

The Hong Kong case has special features, yet illuminates broader debates too. This decision confirms that numbers are not always trumps in immigration policy – neither for this government, nor for sections of the public who support reductions overall. Nor does ethnicity or demographic change dominate public views. Historic ties with an English-speaking group, perceived as economic contributors, clearly trump East Asian ethnicity in this case.

Hong Kong also joins Ireland as a significant exemption to the principle that post-Brexit immigration policy will be geography blind – though no national immigration system has ever adopted this principle without exceptions.

Immigration after Covid

Covid changed the immigration debate. It brought much migration and economic activity to a halt.  Asylum processing was disrupted and citizenship ceremonies were halted. The routine collection of immigration statistics was suspended, with significant reforms planned before they return. Ironically, the government may not know if it were to finally hit the ditched target by accident, with universities fearing a major loss of income if international student flows are reduced.

The pandemic rather overshadowed the government’s flagship immigration bill – an historic but skeletal piece of legislation, creating the legal basis for future policy, without specifying what choices should be made within it.

The government did make policy u-turns under public pressure, dropping the NHS surcharge for health workers. On less salient issues, more minimal concessions were made. Asylum support rates rose £1.85 a week to £39.60 in June, but the government intends to restart evictions from asylum accommodation for those granted refugee status.

Have public attitudes changed? Seven out of 10 people said they were more aware of the positive contribution of migrants in key services. A report by King’s College London and British Future found that, while ‘perceptions of perceptions’ had changed, attitudes before and after the pandemic and overall attitudes to migration remained similar. The research suggested that political and media discourse had caught up with where the public already were – highly supportive of migration in the NHS and in social care; with nuanced and pragmatic views if migration was necessary to fill skills gaps or do necessary work, not just in highly paid roles.

Conclusion: the year two challenges

Shifting public attitudes to immigration have created space for a “balancer” agenda on immigration.  While its public voice has swung between tougher “control” and more welcoming “contribution” messages, the government’s policy choices have often been quietly pragmatic.

This government’s first year was often about the politics of future policy. Many of next year’s immigration challenges will be about implementation.

The post-Brexit system needs to move from the principles to the practical system. This will be introduced in January 2021, six months before the grace period for EU nationals to secure their status ends in June. The government may be unable to differentiate new arrivals from existing residents for the first six months. A route to the settled status scheme must be kept open beyond that deadline – or Boris Johnson and Priti Patel’s 2016 pledges that nobody who had legal status should lose it would be broken.

The political debate about post-Brexit migration has focused almost exclusively on who gets visas to work and study. Asylum and family migration will need more attention.

Implementing the post-Windrush reform agenda should be a central benchmark for the Home Office. Tensions may arise from Wendy Williams call for a review of the “hostile/compliant environment” policy and the government’s security-led instincts when under pressure over spontaneous arrivals on the Kent coast.

The government lacks an integration strategy, and is under pressure to respond to a domestic race equality agenda in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests.

Its Hong Kong decision could become a springboard for the government to develop a proactive strategy to the neglected area of citizenship policy, as a cross-party inquiry chaired by Conservative MP Alberto Costa is to recommend.

Voices outside government will face new challenges too. The post-pandemic recession will require economic stakeholders to rethink their advocacy – doing more to integrate approaches to domestic skills and recruitment with migration. Civic society advocates will seek to persuade the government that an effective and fair system could combine principles of control and compassion too.

Combining the themes of control, contribution and compassion needs to be more than a political message. Next year’s challenge is to secure public confidence in a new immigration system that is fair to those who come to Britain and to the communities that they join.


Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future, a non-partisan think-tank specialising in questions of identity, integration, migration and opportunity. He tweets at @sundersays.



Back to top