Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, is not someone to be cowed by the massed ranks of critics trying to shut her up about immigration. On a trip to Washington last week she caused uproar merely by questioning the continued relevance of the United Nations Refugee Convention, first laid down in 1951, and often talked about as if nothing has changed in the meantime.
This triggered a backlash even in her own party, with MPs – who might be seen as potential leadership rivals should the Tories lose the next election – questioning her rhetoric. Even the Prime Minister indicated he found her arguments about multiculturalism a bit de trop.
But at the Conservative conference in Manchester yesterday Mrs Braverman found a more receptive audience as she again made clear her view that immigration, both legal and illegal, is too high and risks cultural upheaval. She tore into unscrupulous human rights lawyers seeking to thwart efforts to deport criminals. The audience loved it, except for a lone heckler, who was ejected.
Many in the country will also agree with her, but she will need to explain why this has happened on the Conservatives’ watch after 13 years in government. Among the majority voting for Brexit in 2016 were many who thought it would bring down overall numbers, not just change their origin.
Yet this year legal immigration is running at record levels. The arrival of thousands of migrants by boat to claim asylum has distracted from the bigger issue of how many more people the country can take in.
The population has grown by several millions since 2010, largely fuelled by the numbers arriving. They need healthcare, schools and use transport, imposing fresh pressures on Britain’s already strained public finances.
While many immigrants contribute to the economy and help grow GDP, the per capita impact is small. Immigration is not a discrete issue to be discussed solely on the basis of a theoretical adherence to human rights, but has real practical, social and political implications.
Mrs Braverman understands this and is clearly not going to be prevented from saying so in order to appease her more fainthearted colleagues. “I’m made of strong stuff,” she told the conference, and vowed to be honest with the country, even if it would be easier to steer away from the subject. This is a debate that has been closed down too often in the past and must not be again.