Queen Elizabeth’s final official act, on Tuesday, was to swear in her 15th Prime Minister in 70 years, and Britain’s fourth consecutive Conservative prime minister in 12 years. Both the new monarch and the new Prime Minister face a Britain that has changed dramatically and quickly in ways that may overwhelm their abilities. In particular, Prime Minister Liz Truss faces a paradox created by the actions of her three predecessors: The British people are no longer interested in her party’s signature issues.
Britain’s Tories have devoted a decade to a set of perceived problems, involving immigration and the European Union, that voters no longer consider to be problems at all. That forces her into a difficult policy corner.
David Cameron came to office in 2010 on a promise to “slash net migration” to the tens of thousands; under his watch it increased by tens of thousands, to almost 300,000 a year. That led his party’s hard-right Eurosceptic branch to call for an EU membership referendum, largely backed on anti-immigration grounds. Mr. Cameron was humiliated when, in a 2016 vote, it succeeded.
That led the party to appoint Brexit believer Theresa May, who pledged to deliver a well-negotiated exit; when her terms appeared too economically pragmatic and open to European immigration for Tory hardliners, they replaced her with “hard Brexit” champion Boris Johnson, who let his country leave the EU, without a trade or labour-mobility agreement, on Jan. 31, 2020. The closed borders and the flight of European workers led to a crisis of empty shelves, dormant factories and rising prices that, along with botched pandemic measures, drove Mr. Johnson out of office.
Ms. Truss is the first of the four PMs for whom neither Brexit nor immigration can be priorities. That’s because the events of 2016 changed British public attitudes dramatically. For the first time in decades, immigration and Europe no longer appear on surveys as major ballot issues for British voters. The cost of living, health and the environment have eclipsed those concerns.
Anti-Europe sentiments have measurably vanished, to the point that a majority of Britons now say that leaving the EU was “the wrong decision” – and, more significantly, only 36 per cent, the lowest historically, feel it was the right one. A study by the London School of Economics this summer found that most British people – including most “Leave” voters – favour a new deal with the EU that includes free trade and freedom of movement across borders.
Even more dramatic is the disappearance of immigration as a matter of concern for British people. Surveys this year and over the past five years show half of Britons are now favourable to immigration, and fewer than 30 per cent are unfavourable – a reversal of the years and decades before 2016. Even those who voted for Brexit have measurably softened their views on immigration.
This did not happen gradually: Studies show it happened suddenly, within months of the 2016 vote, and has remained consistent since.
It’s particularly astonishing because post-Brexit Britain not only has more immigration than before the vote (more than 374,000 arrived last year), but that immigration is now mostly non-European, non-Christian and non-white. Before 2016, most immigrants were European labourers who were white and Christian. Now, most immigrants come from former colonies in South Asia, Africa and the Middle East and have brown or black skin, but tend to be fluent in English and higher skilled. Last year, Indians replaced Poles as the largest group of British immigrants. (Britain’s economy is still suffering from a debilitating unavailability of labour caused by the EU border closing.)
Britain’s population, in the words of one analysis, went from “diverse” to “superdiverse” after Brexit.
A group of scholars have called this “a populist paradox” – a backlash against newcomers and diversity has created an appetite for newcomers and diversity. In part, the authors say, it was catharsis – the “Leave” voters felt they’d seized control. But it was also loss of face – after the referendum, there has been a desire not to be seen as bigoted or intolerant.
Of course, that is reflected in Liz Truss’s government, which, as many have observed, is the first in British history not to have a white man in a top cabinet position. It is dominated by figures such as Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Home Secretary Suella Braverman, all with parents who were immigrants from Africa. British Tories, even pro-Brexit Tories, are now likely to see immigrants as their people.
Without anger at immigrants or Europe available as animating issues, Ms. Truss has set herself out as a different kind of Tory: an economic libertarian and fiscal conservative devoted to tax cuts and small government (she has even threatened the independence of the Bank of England, to the horror of the economically literate).
She will probably fail at this, since the energy crisis is already forcing her government to subsidize household and business heating costs, adding hundreds of billions to the national debt and possibly requiring tax increases. That will surely be described as yet another populist paradox.