As the new Brexit crisis deepens, Johnson pulls the immigration lever

As Britain’s supply, cost of living and health crises deepen, Boris Johnson’s pivot to a “high wage economy” in his conference speech has set the cat among the pigeons. While his address was in many ways as empty, verbose and economically illiterate as many have pointed out, it was not entirely devoid of meaning. Rather, it was – like his recent reshuffle, which promoted the culture warriors and retained Priti Patel – a clear signal that he is doubling down on his modus operandi. Shapeshifter Johnson may be, but mostly he’s just shifting the language in ever more expansive rhetorical flights. The substance is remarkably consistent, and pace all those who keep looking for a “new” Johnson, the old one – or at least, the one he created in 2016 and doubled down on in 2019 – is still very much driving things forward. 

The key to understanding what is going on is that Johnson once again pulled the political lever of immigration when said that “the way forward for our country is not to just pull the big lever marked ‘uncontrolled immigration’”. Looked at in this light, the alarm of the free-marketeers about the “high wage economy” is rather overdone. If Johnson is “leaning right on culture and left on the economy” – the formula which the right-wing academic Matthew Goodwin pioneered seems to have taken off at high levels – so far this is just another rhetorical pitch in the direction of what “culture” euphemistically represents, i.e. anti-immigrant racism. 

Thus the “high wage economy” is not an economic or social strategy, but a new way of reviving the political racism of Vote Leave, at a point when it’s becoming clear that the real economic problem is the lack of immigration from the EU which its victory and Johnson’s policies have caused. The “high wage economy” is an audacious new ideological device and – unless its initial outing proves a failure with Tory voters as well as the economically literate – we may expect to hear much more of it as the problems of Brexit mount. However its underlying political message is that, despite how the matter appears to economists, the task of controlling immigration is still the top political priority and explains away the growing shortages.

We should not really be surprised at this turn of events. As Johnson sealed the UK’s exit from the Single Market nine months ago – the moment at which its current problems became inevitable – Philip Collins argued in the New Statesman that “when levelling up proves to be impossible, and when the rift in its electoral coalition opens, the Conservative Party will return to immigration in desperation. It will have to. With no European Union to act as a receptacle for grievance, immigration will have to be made more salient again”. 

Disregarding the unrealistic assumptions that that the Tories had ceased to pursue immigration themes – the mass deportations, campaign against asylum seekers and every word Priti Patel uttered said otherwise – and that the thin agreements with the EU would stave off conflict rather than providing new occasions for it, the point was well made. “Immigration”, the core issue of nativist racial nationalism, would return with a vengeance if the Tories’ situation became critical. 

That moment is now upon them. Cornered by the mess that Johnson’s Brexit has caused in Ireland, they appear to be preparing a high-stakes showdown with the EU, while shortages are really biting across Britain. The Tories may have “had the time of their lives” in Manchester, but a remarkably wide range of people across Britain are not, by any means. Presumably their next tune will be the old favourite, “Things can only get better”, but this rhetoric can only work if their core voters among the older, comfortably off, racially and nationalistically inclined are sufficiently immune to material inconvenience to stay loyal, while the rest of the electorate is confused and demoralised enough to fail to unite against them. Despite the right’s successes over the last five years, it’s quite a tall order. 

By forefronting immigration once again, through the Orwellian rhetoric of “higher wages”, Johnson has confirmed that the political racism of 2016 remains his go-to method to sustain the Brexiter Tory base through the new crisis. However it is not clear if this will be enough to carry him through to victory in a new general election, which is what he needs to protect himself from a richly deserved reckoning.

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