This article originally appeared in our Elevenses newsletter.
Good morning. The polling agency Ipsos MORI has, for many years, asked people in Britain every month what they think are the most important issues facing the country. In December 2015, six months before the EU referendum and around three years after figures like Nigel Farage started making a name for themselves, just 1 per cent of the sample cited the EU as the most important issue of the day. By April 2019 that figure had jumped to 59 per cent.
Quite how Europe became the biggest issue in the minds of a nation that, just four years prior, had taken very little interest in it is a quandary that, arguably, hasn’t been given enough attention. Google trends data released the day after the referendum showed that among the top questions being asked by Brits were ‘what is the EU?’ and ‘what does it mean to leave the EU?’, which was interpreted by many to mean that voters didn’t actually know what they were voting for at the ballot box. I would attest, perhaps more kindly, that it reflected an understandable need to rationalise a topic that had quite literally been thrust upon them now that it had real-life ramifications. Up until then, Brexit had been nothing more than filler for the tabloid press and fodder for the loud-mouthed politicians looking for their day in the sun. No one actually expected anything to come of it.
Now, almost seven years later, the Tory’s need to tap into the emotional public sphere has reared its ugly head once again in the shape of its new small boats policy. Rishi Sunak, standing behind a lecturn emblazoned with a familiar-looking three-word slogan, told the nation that their illegal plan (their words, not mine) to stop asylum seekers making the treacherous trip across the Channel should be the number one concern for Brits following months on end of hyperbolic media spin. Suella Braverman then packed her bags and headed to Rwanda with select media representatives for a vanity trip to look around houses that will shelter desperate refugees in what amounts to little more than a government-sanctioned people trafficking exercise.
And the worse thing about it is that it has worked. The latest Ipsos poll shows concern about immigration has risen sharply in the past month, with one in five people now saying it is one of the biggest issues facing the country. Forget inflation being out of control, forget the economy being on its knees, forget the NHS being in tatters. The Tories have actually managed to convince people that small rubber dinghies represent the biggest threat to their livelihoods in a shift that represents a 75 per cent increase on the previous month. And, most tragically of all, it is those in the least deprived areas who were found to especially hold this belief, despite being the people most adversely affected by the state of the UK economy and its crumbling health system.
The Tories are gearing up to make the next election one that is fought on immigration and foreign policy to distract from their hopeless record at home. The sad thing is; people seem to be buying it.
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