On 8 May 2024, the Centre for Policy Studies (CfPS) released a report on immigration under the name Taking Back Control. Intended as a high profile intervention in the policy debates currently overtaking the Conservative Party, the report was instead buried almost instantly by the defection of Natalie Elphicke to Labour. The report offers a glimpse into what the future may hold for a Tory Party with more cranks than MPs. 

The report is the work of two senior Conservative MPs, Robert Jenrick and Neil O’Brien, with assistance from various CfPS staff. Jenrick is a former Cabinet Minister, who dramatically resigned from his role as Minister of State for Immigration on the basis that the Government plan to deport refugees to Rwanda was not harsh enough.

His co-author O’Brien has been an MP only since 2017, and risen no higher than Parliamentary Under-Secretary, but has nevertheless had a prolific career in Conservative Party politics. After starting his career as campaigns advisor, he served tenures as Director of the think tanks Onward and the CfPS. Later he became a special advisor to George Osborne and part of Theresa May’s team during her team as Prime Minister. Widely seen as wonkish, he is highly regarded as a policy intellectual within Conservative circles. 

The report that Jenkins and O’Brien have produced is extremely ambitious. It attempts to frame immigration as the most important issue facing the country today, and advocate for a more restrictive immigration policy. This argument is based on both political arguments, as voters apparently dislike immigration, and economic ones. The economic arguments deployed are especially bold as they seek to attack long-standing academic consensus that immigration is a net positive for the UK economy.

The economic arguments in the report have been particularly widely criticised for their selective use of statistics. For example, the report attempts to argue that immigration has amongst other things reduced productivity, increased housing prices, and contributed to the flat-lining of the UK economy. The IEA has been particularly critical of these arguments, noting the deliberate omission of other policy failures which have affected these areas, such as Britain’s planning system, and the failure to recover from the 2008 Great Financial Crisis.

One of the more peculiar statistics in the report is an assertion that 47.6% of head of households in London social housing were born abroad. This is a deeply peculiar statistical choice, which as the report acknowledges, ignores whether or not these individuals are actually British citizens. It is in other words an attempt to misrepresent the fact that the majority of social housing in London is occupied by British citizens.

This specific statistic has in fact long been doing the rounds on social media, usually Twitter, in the form of an infographic originating from an article in the esoteric Pimlico Journal. Pimlico Journal is a substack based publication that adopts a kind of self-consciously edgy, hyper-contrarian, right-wing political stance. If you want a brief idea of the veins that are being mined: it has published a bizarre array of articles which have amongst other things included attacks on pensioners, incoherent rants about modern women, and argues cyclists should be more afraid of cars.

Neil O’Brian has displayed a deep standing fascination with and even admiration for Pimlico Journal, and the magazine has arguably reciprocated. O’Brien has endorsed its analysis on Twitter, while the Journal’s own account has praised O’Brien’s writing and used it to boost its own articles.

O’Brien’s own Substack suggests that he follows a large number of fringe publications, often operated by lone internet users. Most peculiar of O’Brien’s reading perhaps is the Substack maintained by Emil Kirkegaard, a fringe IQ researcher, and proprietor of several pseudo-science journals. Kirkegaard has become known in recent years for his claims that black people have lower IQs and his description of homosexuality as mental illness.

Substack’s freewheeling uncensored nature is arguably part of its appeal. Anyone can publish there, and indeed almost anyone does. It is also arguably its major problem as the platform has acquired a remarkably large number of cranks.

What then are we to make of O’Brien’s apparent attraction to deeply eccentric and obviously factually incorrect anonymous commentators? In a certain sense, at time of writing, it does not matter very much what Conservative MPs think. The party is currently facing what is likely to be a near apocalyptic wipeout at the next election. It is unclear that the party can, in its current form, really survive. 

In this sense it is very easy for MPs to develop an interest in the claims of online oddballs. As the ongoing election has shown, policy formation has become a disjointed process that encourages MPs like O’Brien to freelance. Furthermore the very-online nature of the Westminster Bubble does an excellent job of hiding how bad this is. Most Westminster MPs, lobby journalists, and political staff are active on Twitter, and historically the barrier between them and the rest of Twitter has always been very thin. Famously as many MPs are still too willing to argue at length with their anonymous detractors and trolls, we’re never far from hearing their calls of the urgent need to end online anonymity.

O’Brien’s apparent willingness to entertain fringe views online is worrying in and of itself. But what is more concerning is that these views are increasingly being given the sheen of respectability by MPs and Tufton Street outlets before being disseminated into the mainstream. MPs on the whole are all too willing to undermine their own credibility by arguing endlessly online or accepting the adulation of anonymous nobodies. This speaks to a culture that does not understand the internet and online communities, even while being immersed in it. For one of the many possible visions of a post-wipeout Tory Party, look to Neil O’Brien, an early warning of the sort right-wing crankery that may lie ahead.