Theresa May’s immigration triumph could be her legacy

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Since the EU referendum in June, the number of people applying for asylum has fallen sharply. Before the vote, a typical figure for applicants in the summer was over 3,000 per month. The figure for July was 1,700. Over the course of the whole year, it looks as though numbers will be about 30 per cent down on the average of the previous five years.

A friend in the refugee charitable sector tells me no one is precisely sure why this fall has taken place, but that one can make educated guesses, based on what asylum seekers say. One is that Home Office procedures are, in general, tightening. Another is that the mood has changed, and the new arrivals feel they are less likely to be welcomed. The most significant, though, is that they know, if they are granted asylum in post-Brexit Britain, that it will carry no automatic right to settle in other EU countries.

If this last is the key factor, it probably applies to most other would-be immigrants, not only to asylum seekers. (And it confirms that Brexit-voters were reasonable to fear that large influxes into other EU countries – notably Germany’s one million refugees last year – would ultimately increase numbers in Britain too.) The pressure on Britain will therefore ease and that on the borderless, Schengen countries will probably grow.

Whether one laments or welcomes a decline in migrant numbers, the politics of this are clearly good for Theresa May. If, after years during her time as Home Secretary of immigration numbers going up, they now, with her as Prime Minister, fall, people will believe she means business. Voters will be able to see a trend even before Brexit has actually happened. This, in turn, will make more of them believe that Brexit will be successful. At a time when short-term economic woes will make leaving the EU look less enticing, falling immigration rates will cheer up wavering Leavers.

Mrs May, of course, will have her eyes fixed on these figures. One must expect her to do everything she legally can to have them pointing at what she would see as the right direction at the right time – the next election.

Brexit remains a delicate subject for social conversation. At a recent party in London, I met several non-British EU citizens who spoke ruefully about not being wanted here any more (though none who felt this strongly enough that they planned to leave). One man, who has lived in Britain for many years, told me that he was, as it used to say on jars of bargain honey, the “product of more than one country” through his parentage. I asked him how he liked to describe himself. “Only by using a word which are no longer allowed to use, beginning with E”, he said.

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