By Alex Morales and Kitty Donaldson
UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman warned that unfettered immigration poses a risk to the UK’s “national character,” ramping up the pressure on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to slash arrivals and positioning herself for a future Conservative Party leadership contest.
With official statistics next week expected to show record net arrivals in the UK last year, Braverman said numbers must come down. Britons should be trained up to fill roles currently being filled by immigrants, she told NatCon UK, a conference of the Tory right organized by the Washington-based Edmund Burke Foundation, a public affairs institute.
“It’s not racist for anyone, ethnic minority or otherwise, to want to control our borders,” said Braverman, whose parents are of Indian origin and emigrated to Britain from Kenya and Mauritius in the 1960s. She said Britain couldn’t have “immigration without integration,” adding “we have a national character to conserve.”
The remarks by Braverman — who oversees immigration policy and is seen as a standard-bearer for the Tories’ populist right — point to a split in government between those on the right who want to deliver on Brexit promises to greatly reduce immigration — and others who see the need for foreign arrivals to fill jobs in agriculture and road haulage that Britons won’t take.
“There is no good reason why we can’t train up enough truck drivers, butchers or welders,” Braverman said. She also said that “rapid migration is unsustainable in terms of housing supply, public services” and community relations.
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Conservative governments for years have struggled to rein in immigration, despite a long-standing pledge through the 2010s to get it down to the “tens of thousands.”
Instead, net immigration rose to a record 504,000 in the year to June 2022, and Office for National Statistics data due on May 25 is expected to eclipse that. The Centre for Policy Studies estimates it could be as high as 997,000, a figure that’s likely to heighten criticisms that the government is failing to deliver on its Brexit problems.
Energy Secretary Grant Shapps on Sunday said that he didn’t think the figure would hit a million, and pointed out that British programs to accept Ukrainian refugees and UK nationals from Hong Kong accounted for about 300,000 people. That’s a record the country “should be proud of,” he told Sky News.
While Sunak has said that he wants to get immigration down “over time,” his focus has been on reducing the number of people arriving on Britain’s shores in small boats.
The government says criminal gangs and people smugglers are at the root of the problem. Ministers are trying to end the crossings through deterrent policies including sending arrivals to Rwanda and banning them from ever claiming asylum or citizenship in Britain.
Legislation to deliver on that is working its way through Parliament, and during a debate in the House of Lords last week, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the head of the Church of England whose position affords him a seat in the UK’s upper chamber, described it as “morally unacceptable.”
Nevertheless, Sunak remains undeterred by the opposition, telling the Mail on Sunday that he was leading meetings of a special panel twice weekly to discuss the immigration crackdown as the legislation progresses. A month after contracting the first barge to house people who cross the English channel, he promised to use “as many as it takes” to reduce the current bill for housing arrivals in hotels.
Sunak’s preparations for the incoming law mean that “from the moment that we have the green light we can crack on and deliver it,” he told the paper.
Ending small boats crossings is one of Sunak’s five core pledges that he’s asked voters to judge him on as he tries to turn around the flagging fortunes of the governing Conservatives, who have trailed the opposition Labour party by a double-digit margin in national polling for months.
But after the Tories lost more than 1,000 seats in local elections this month, the right of the party is increasingly emboldened to speak out against the government’s direction. Recent disquiet has also centered on housing policy and the high burden of taxation.
Many blame him for the ouster last year of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson — the darling of the party grassroots. That gave way to a calamitous 7-week tenure as premier by Liz Truss, before Sunak took over in a contest decided by Tory Members of Parliament.
Last week, other right wingers slammed Sunak for retreating from a pledge to scrap all legislation inherited from Britain’s membership of the European Union by year-end. Former Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg compared him to the Borgias, a renaissance Italian family that became a byword for immorality. He sought to clarify that remark on Sunday, telling Sky News that Sunak “broke a promise, that was the point.”
Rees-Mogg is due to speak again the same conference as Braverman. Housing Secretary Michael Gove and Conservative Party Vice Chairman Lee Anderson are also due to address the three-day event.
Former Home Secretary Priti Patel on Saturday blamed “bad decisions” and Tory “infighting” for the poor election results. Without naming Sunak, she lamented that his ascent to power without a vote of the party grassroots had undermined trust.
“Some parts of Westminster and colleagues have done a better job at damaging our party than the opposition,” Patel told the meeting of the Conservative Democratic Organisation, which seeks to expand the powers of rank-and-file Tory members. “We’ve got to stop this decline.”