The Conservative Party’s covert leadership battle

Theresa May

Behind the Conservatives' failed immigration targets, the beginnings of a hidden leadership contest are taking place.

The Conservative party pledged to cut net immigration to “tens of thousands” by 2015, as reported by the BBC. They have comprehensively failed to do so, nearly 300,000 more entered than left the UK.

The immigration pledge was a foolish promise to make for two reasons. Firstly, it was a target they never could have met. To reduce net migration to less than 100,000, the UK would have had to have left the EU, something the Conservatives were never going to commit to. Secondly, the figure is rather arbitrary. Reducing immigration to the tens of thousands for the sake of simply reaching that target isn’t good policy. Even Nigel Farage has admitted this recently, and has scrapped UKIP’s immigration cap, and instead focused on who should and shouldn’t be allowed into the country.

Many senior Conservatives have now admitted the target was a mistake and could not ever have been met. So why then has Theresa May committed the Conservatives to this target again?

The answer is that these are the first manoeuvres in a Conservative leadership contest. May is positioning herself to fight the socially liberal, metropolitan Boris Johnson.

The London Mayor is seen as a front-runner to succeed David Cameron as leader, and it’s no secret that Boris Johnson is running for parliament in May (despite still being London Mayor), but is Johnson positioning himself ahead of a future leadership contest? Boris Johnson has previously expressed pro-immigration views, claiming rising immigration both helped the economy and was a sign of a successful economy. He has even questioned the motives of those opposed to immigration and population growth asking, "How would people feel if the population pressure was caused entirely by white, Anglo-Saxon protestant babies?".

Theresa May clearly believes immigration will be important dividing line in any upcoming Conservative leadership contest, and with UKIP showing no real signs of major decline, she’s probably correct.

Of course the Conservatives still have a leader in David Cameron, but the Tories aren’t a party that shows much loyalty to an unsuccessful leader – just ask Iain Duncan Smith. Should the Conservatives fail to be the biggest party after the May election, it’s unlikely David Cameron will remain as leader. Even with a victory in May, the Conservatives will almost definitely have a different leader for the 2020 general election.

Theresa May’s split from the rest of the cabinet over immigration, will be the first of many rows in order to canvas support within the Conservative party for a future leadership bid.