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New Conservatives: the northern MPs outflanking Sunak on migration

A new group of Tory MPs drawn from the Red Wall has launched an audacious bid to force Rishi Sunak to adopt a much tougher line on migration ahead of the next election.

The 12-point plan unveiled by the New Conservatives on Monday, “raises a series of interlinked questions, including what it says about the renewed salience of immigration as a political issue, and the authority of Sunak”, said The Guardian’s deputy political editor Peter Walker.

Who are they and what do they want?

An amalgam of the National Conservatives and the anti-woke Common Sense Group, the new caucus is made up of around 25 Tory MPs elected to constituencies in the north of England in 2017 and 2019 on a promise to Get Brexit Done.

Inspired by a “communitarian, migration-sceptic form of politics”, their aim is “to reawaken the alignment brought about by Brexit and the 2019 general election that saw the Red Wall turn blue”, said the New Statesman’s Freddie Hayward.

The group formally launched on Monday with a 12-point plan to cut immigration by more than 400,000 by the next election, accompanied by a warning that failure to do so would lead the Tories to defeat.

The plan is “based on the premise that withdrawing the life-support of foreign labour would force employers to recruit domestic workers instead”, said Matt Dathan in The Times. It includes raising salary thresholds for migrant workers, restricting foreign students to top universities, and further curbs on the number of relatives they can bring. Most contentious is a call to scrap Health and Care Visas, launched to fill gaps in the health and social care sector with overseas workers.

Miriam Cates, one of the leaders of the group who is described as “a rising star on the Tory right” by Dathan, said: “The choice is this: cut immigration, keep our promise to voters and restore democratic cultural and economic security. Or kick the can down the road, lose the next election and resign ourselves to a low growth, low wage, labour-intensive service economy.”

While the immediate focus is on migration, “expect to hear plenty more from the group in the coming months”, said Politico, particularly on the issues of law and order and the threat to Britain of “woke” ideas.

Do they matter?

The New Conservatives may be nothing new, said Hayward, “but the group could still cause problems for the government”.

Their widely publicised plan to bring down migration has “created a fresh headache” for Rishi Sunak, said The Telegraph. Already facing record levels of legal migration, the prime minister’s signature Illegal Immigration Bill aimed at stopping small boats crossing the Channel is facing serious challenges in the Lords, while the Court of Appeal recently ruled that the government’s Rwanda deportation plan was unlawful.

The New Conservatives have rejected the notion that they aim to cause trouble for the prime minister “but they’re undoubtedly a thorn in Sunak’s side as the next election looms”, said Politico.

With polls suggesting the Tories are on course for a mauling at the next election, the launch “points to a divergence within the Conservative Party over the direction it should take”, said Hayward. The New Conservatives want their ideas to feature in the 2024 election manifesto, and believe they have the agenda to connect with working-class voters unconvinced by Sunak’s premiership.

What’s at stake now is the Tory manifesto, said Isabella Hardman in The Spectator, “which Sunak is under pressure to make as tough as possible on immigration, particularly to compensate for the likelihood that he won’t meet his pledge to ‘stop the boats’”.

The New Conservatives do not yet have the numbers to pose a real problem in the Commons for the government “but for an increasingly beleaguered Sunak, it is yet another split he could really do without,” said Walker.

Will they last?

The New Conservatives are “admirable,” said Tim Stanley in The Telegraph, “but I suspect they need a new party”.

Conservative commentator John Oxley agreed that given the electoral oblivion facing the Tories, especially in the north, the New Conservatives’ impact may be short-lived.

Many of those elected in 2019 to Red Wall seats are likely to lose at the next election, he told Politico. “They may be trying to sway the manifesto in a way that helps them, or mark themselves out as immigration hardliners to try and buck the national trend, but it seems unlikely to have much sway with Rishi Sunak.

“Equally, it seems unlikely this group will have much impact on the future of the Conservative Party, as so many of them will be out of parliament when that discussion begins after the election,” he concluded.

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