LONDON — “Stopping the boats” — Rishi Sunak’s bid to sharply reduce irregular migration routes — is now the second-biggest concern among 2019 Conservative voters, according to a new poll.
It ranks above cutting NHS surgery waiting lists and accident and emergency response times, the study carried out by Public First for Universities U.K. shows.
The findings, shared with POLITICO’s London Playbook, demonstrate why Sunak has made reducing the numbers of people making the dangerous crossing of the English Channel a priority.
They come in the week his government unveiled a new Illegal Migration Bill aiming to make it easier to detain and deport people arriving in the country through irregular means.
The plan has drawn sharp drawn criticism from both the United Nations refugee agency and the European Union who have warned it risks violating international law. But Sunak argued Wednesday that “stopping the boats is not just my priority, it’s the people’s priority.”
The polling shows that illegal migration has become a top-four issue among voters, rising to top-two among those who backed the Tories in the last election. But at the same time, the polling suggests far less worry about legal migration — a hot-button issue in the U.K. in the years leading up to its vote to leave the EU.
Asked to choose three challenges ministers should prioritize, 66 percent of 2019 Tory voters said the cost of living; 41 percent said illegal migration routes such as small boats; 37 percent said NHS waiting lists for operations; and 25 percent said ambulance and A&E wait times.
One driving factor behind these figures is fear among some voters that illegal immigration is putting a strain on public services.
James Frayne, a former Conservative adviser who now runs Public First said: “If they sorted out boats but the cost of living rose and NHS waiting lists didn’t come down, it’d be an irrelevance. But if they can make progress it’d not only placate irritated Leavers but also demonstrate they’d got their act together to everybody else.”
The poll found that just 13 percent of 2019 Tory voters ranked legal migration a top-three issue — falling to 9 percent among all voters. And only 9 percent of people thought the government should discourage international students from coming to the U.K.
“Some people in government think that the most recent numbers of legal migrants was so big that they have no choice but to go for a quick win and reduce the numbers very quickly, wherever they can,” Frayne said.
“Students are a very obvious way of doing that… But it’s just not what the public want to see at all.”