A group of “fanatic” right-wing Tory MPs has been warned by senior Conservatives that its radical immigration proposals are undermining Rishi Sunak with a “gift to Labour” at the ballot box.
The so-called New Conservatives were slapped down by the PM and senior Tory colleagues after offering immigration proposals radically at odds with government policy.
The latest blue-on-blue battle erupted after the group of 25 MPs – which includes deputy Tory chairman Lee Anderson – piled pressure on Mr Sunak to crack down on foreign social care workers and overseas students.
The New Conservatives urged Mr Sunak and his home secretary Suella Braverman to slash net migration by two-thirds by the general election – from 606,000 to below 226,000 – in order to “save face” with voters.
But the plan sparked an immediate backlash from Tory moderates. Tobias Ellwood labelled the ideas “populist and isolationist”, while others accused the group of making life more difficult for Tories desperately trying to cling on to their seats in 2024.
One senior Tory MP told The Independent: “The last thing the Conservative Party needed was a new sub-group of fanatics sucking up airtime. This sideshow will do nothing to help at-risk colleagues hold onto their seats, and will only make matters worse.”
Another senior Tory said: “If by trashing the Conservative brand by attacking its record on immigration they hope to get re-elected they will be sadly disappointed.”
The former minister added, sarcastically: “By amplifying this issue they are simply giving more seats to Labour. What a good day’s work for these so-called New Conservatives.”
Mr Anderson raised eyebrows by failing to turn up for the launch of the New Conservatives’ 12 immigration proposals, citing illness, despite backing the plan.
The right-wing body’s co-chair, Danny Kruger, made clear that the controversial deputy Tory chairman was “supportive” and was “part of the group” – raising fresh questions about Mr Sunak’s grip on his own fractious party.
Labour’s shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper mocked the fact that Mr Anderson was now behind “an entirely different Conservative immigration policy” to Ms Braverman’s plan.
Ms Cooper told the Commons that Tory backbenchers were “writing her immigration policy because they don’t think she is up to the job”.
The New Conservatives said “swift action” was needed on migration numbers – urging Mr Sunak to close a scheme which makes “care workers” and “senior care workers” eligible for visas despite the sector grappling with 165,000 unfilled vacancies in the last year.
“We are not going to make it an attractive career [to British citizens], we are not going to raise wages, if there is this route for employers to bring in people from abroad,” said co-chair Miriam Cates.
Ms Cates warned that the party faces defeat at the election expected in autumn 2024 unless the bold measures are taken up.
“The choice is this – cut immigration, keep our promise to voters and restore democratic, cultural and economic security,” she said. “Or kick the can down the road, lose the next election and resign ourselves to a low growth, low wage, labour-intensive service economy.”
But No 10 rejected the New Conservatives’ demands, with a spokesperson for the PM claiming that the government is currently “striking the right balance” on immigration.
The spokesperson said removing care workers from the shortage occupation list was “not being considered”, citing the “significant demand in the care sector for staff”.
The PM’s official spokesman refused to say whether Mr Sunak was frustrated by Mr Anderson’s support for a crackdown – but acknowledged there were “different views on each side” of the debate.
Moderate Tory MPs, loyal to Mr Sunak, were scathing about the right-wing policy push and attempt to raise expectations of a new crackdown among red wall voters.
Mr Ellwood, chair of the defence select committee, said: “We should avoid populist and isolationist rhetoric. The migrant issue is complex and can’t be solved simply by switching off visa programmes.”
He added: “We should exhibit greater statecraft in tackling this issue starting by recognising the source of the challenge – namely growing instability in countries we’ve wandered into then abandoned interest in.”
The right-wing red wall group is also calling for a cap of 20,000 on the number of refugees, and raising salary thresholds for skilled visas.
The backbenchers also want to close the route for graduate students to remain in the UK after their studies, and for student visas to be “reserved for the brightest” by making only the top universities eligible.
But senior Tory MP Robin Walker, a former education minister, told The Independent that the group’s proposals for student visas were “a non-starter”.
“You cannot differentiate between the grades of university, we do not with the fees system and it would be very unfair to suddenly introduce that for immigration purposes,” Mr Walker said.
He said restrictions on student visas was “not a realistic approach”, adding that overseas students “do tend to go home, do tend to benefit our university system and bring valuable funding with them”, adding: “I don’t see the argument for trying to restrict their numbers per se.”
The MPs who came up with a blueprint for reducing the number of migrants arriving lawfully insisted they are loyal to Mr Sunak.
Tom Hunt, MP for Ipswich, told reporters in Westminster: “I know there is a lot being written about ‘Tory rebels’ et cetera. I’ll just make it absolutely clear, that is not how we see it. I supported Rishi Sunak to become prime minister, I do not regret the decision I made.”
One senior Tory MP told The Independent there was “angst and irritation” inside the party that the High Court last week knocked back the plan to send failed asylum seekers to Rwanda.
“It’s a setback, but it’s not insurmountable,” said the Sunak supporter. “The bulk of colleagues still support the idea of practical measures to tackle illegal migration and getting the balance right on legal migration.”
Tuesday will mark six months since Mr Sunak invited the public to judge him on his five targets – including his promise to “stop the boats”.
However, a new record has just been set for June for migrant crossings, official figures showed on Monday. Some 3,824 migrants arrived last month, compared with 3,140 in June last year.