In addition to her highly reported ‘dream’ of putting irregularised migrants on planes to Rwanda, the newly re-appointed Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, has expressed her commitment to reduce legal migration to the tens of thousands.  While previous Tory politicians such as David Cameron and Theresa May asserted such aspirations, these targets were proven to be ultimately unrealistic and undeliverable, and quietly dropped – until now.  While immigration has long been a political hot potato, in the post-Brexit landscape it is proving to be especially contentious. We argue that current Tory party attitudes towards immigration reveal fundamental contradictions at the heart of Conservative ideology as neo-liberal aspirations for free market economics and neo-nationalist dreams of controlling borders make for unhappy bed fellows.

The UK economy faces record numbers of job vacancies, including over 165,000 unfilled posts in the social care sector.  Under-staffing in health and social care has been linked to so-called ‘bed blocking’ in hospitals, as older patients are unable to be moved on into social care settings, leading to longer waiting times and queues of ambulances unable to unload patients.  Meanwhile the number of nursing vacancies has been described as ‘staggering’, with serious implications for the ability of the NHS to provide healthcare over the coming winter months.  The Tory government consistently, and determinedly, fails to acknowledge any link between record job vacancies and post-Brexit immigration restrictions: this despite the evident fact that a large proportion of these now-vacant posts were previously filled by EU workers.

Bringing a sociological analysis to this immigration quandary in the post-Brexit context, we argue that the core political principles justifying calls for reduced migration, and ‘taking back control of borders’, are fundamentally at odds with the neo-liberal logic associated with the free movement of capital, goods and labour. Neo-liberal economics promotes the removal of restraints, in the service of fostering a free market. These principles have found renewed voice in so-called Trussonomics, embodying the agenda of the highly influential Institute for Economic Affairs.  Those promoting this agenda are at odds with others inside the Tory party, such as Home Secretary Braverman, who are proposing to further tighten restrictions on migration.   Reducing migration may have been a vote winner in 2019 but the consequences of this policy in terms of, for example, the severe shortage of nurses and carers, are clearly visible and likely to impact most on the poorest and most disadvantaged in society who rely disproportionately upon health and social care services.  We argue that this fundamental contradiction at the heart of Tory politics needs to be exposed instead of hidden behind what the Financial Times has called a ‘conspiracy of silence‘ relating to Brexit.

It is important to understand the underlying nature of the problem. The UK political system of ‘first-past-the-post’ elections by its nature produces large political parties that are inclusive of a spectrum of ideological orientations, and their respective advocates. Belonging to such parties is the only effective way of securing political power in such a system. As such, political parties essentially operate as coalitions, but must formulate policy to navigate the various ideological orientations contained within, seeking to find the most politically productive balance available in any given moment. The optimal ideological balance may very well differ across diverse policy arenas. For instance, an ideological balance that is politically profitable in the arena of economic policy may present political challenges in the field of immigration.

We see this playing out particularly clearly in the context of the Conservative Government’s post-Brexit immigration policy: the fundamental contradiction between the free trade, free market, neo-liberal economics and the neo-nationalist pre-occupation of ‘taking back control of our borders’. In the real-world policy mess of the post-Brexit context, what emerged in reality is very different to what either the free-marketeers or the neo-nationalists claimed would be delivered by the Brexit dividend.

In terms of trade, the UK has: largely failed to secure the new free-trade deals promised (in particular with the United States); is beset with new frictions in its business with the EU (as both its nearest neighbour, and world’s largest market), and is desperately hoping that no-one will notice the ecological insanity of replacing more sustainable ‘local’ trade with the EU with comparatively unproductive trans-planetary deals with the likes of Australia. Post-Brexit economic frictions are also provoking potentially deadly political conflicts associated with the de-facto trade border in the Irish Sea. Indeed the only place in the United Kingdom where the implications of Brexit are regularly and openly discussed by leading political figures is Northern Ireland, where its consequences have effectively paralysed devolved government.

On the immigration side, following the removal of EU Freedom of Movement rights, the Government has attempted to fill job vacancies by quietly introducing a raft of short term, sector-specific immigration visas. Such schemes range from farm workers, to butchers, to poultry workers, to lorry drivers and from social care staff to NHS staff.  For example, over 80,000 skilled sponsored worker visas were issued in 2021, primarily in Health Care. Given the continued job vacancies in that one sector alone, any political aspiration to bring migration down to the ‘tens of thousands’ seems not only unrealistic but probably dangerous to the overall viability of the UK health sector, and to the broader economic vitality of the nation.

Moreover, these schemes are highly bureaucratic, placing a burden on employers. They have also singularly failed in recruiting sufficient numbers of workers, largely because these temporary opportunities are not attractive to migrants.  Such short-term schemes are underpinned by the view that migration can be turned on and off like a tap, depending on labour market demands and political expediency. Migrants are reduced to economic units, rather than social beings with complex needs and relationships, including families. Any hope that migrants might have of embedding in British society are dashed by such time limited visa schemes[1].  Moreover, as the experiences of other countries show, these so-called guest-worker schemes simply do not work in the long term[2].

In the past the UK relied heavily on Ireland as a reserve army of labour, for example in construction and in the NHS[3], where the common travel area agreement (CTA) retains the free movement of labour, but now as the Irish economy is booming, migration from that country has fallen dramatically[4].

As social scientists, we must urgently challenge the political conspiracy of silence that is currently working to close down scrutiny of the Brexit ‘dividend’. The Conservative Government, presiding over the consequences of Brexit, has absolutely no wish to see a light shone on its real-world effects. The Labour Party, eager to recapture the hearts and minds of the Brexit-supporting voters behind the ‘Red Wall’, has clearly decided that a sustained critique of the Tory Governments delivery of Brexit is an electoral liability. The BBC, fighting a rear-guard action both against Conservative Party efforts to revision its licence-fee funding, and Tory deployments of the culture wars to smear the organisation as ‘wokeish’ and ‘leftist’, appears to be steering well clear of a proper and sober evaluation of the impact of what was arguably the biggest political decision taken by the UK since WWII.

We argue that it is time for an open and meaningful conversation about immigration that is both empirically informed, and that takes a critical-analytical lens to the competing and contradictory ideological and political dynamics framing the current post-Brexit context. The consequences of post-Brexit immigration restrictions need to be thoroughly evaluated to assess the impact not only on the rights and working conditions of migrant workers but also on the wider population who might very well now find themselves waiting for ambulances, unable to secure social care or to book NHS appointments. It is indeed time to break the silence on Brexit!

[1] Mulholland, J., & Ryan, L. (2022). Advancing the embedding framework: using longitudinal methods to revisit French highly skilled migrants in the context of Brexit. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.


[3] Ryan, L. (2007). Who do you think you are? Irish nurses encountering ethnicity and constructing identity in Britain. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 30(3), 416-438.

[4] Hickman, M. J., & Ryan, L. (2020). The “Irish question”: marginalizations at the nexus of sociology of migration and ethnic and racial studies in Britain. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 43(16), 96-114.

Dr Jon Mulholland is an Associate Professor in Sociology at the University of the West of England, Bristol. Jon’s research interests are in the fields of migration, diversity and nationalism, in addition to the environment and sustainability. Jon has recently co-authored the paper, ‘Advancing the embedding framework: using longitudinal methods to revisit French highly skilled migrants in the context of Brexit’, with Professor Louise Ryan, in the  Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, (2022), and co-edited the text; Mulholland. J., Ricci, A. and Massi, M. (2022) The Artisan Brand: Entrepreneurship and Marketing in Contemporary Craft Economies, Edward Elgar Press – ISBN: 978 1 83910 612 5.

Louise Ryan is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Global Diversities and Inequalities Research Centre at London Metropolitan University.  She has published widely on migration and her most recent book is Revisiting Migrant Networks (co-edited with Keskiner and Eve, 2022).  Her monograph Social Networks and Migration will be published in 2023. She is currently part of the Horizon2020 funded project MIMY researching migrant youth across 9 European countries.