Boris Johnson has the chance to "bring more light and less heat" to the debate over immigration and "restore public trust" on the issue, following a "major shift" in public attitudes since 2016, according to new research.
The British Future think tank and the Policy Institute at King's College London released a report indicating that immigration is no longer a "top of mind" concern for the public, with most people more focused on the NHS and Brexit.
This gives the prime minister the opportunity to regain public confidence by introducing a pragmatic, balanced agenda on immigration, the study authors claimed.
A change in attitudes
When respondents to the ICM survey for the British Future report were asked to list the issues that were most important to them in the 2019 general election, only 41% said immigration, putting it ninth overall on the list.
Way out in front was the NHS, with 74% of responses, followed by Brexit (59%), the economy and taxation (54%) and crime (49%).
This suggests a significant change in attitudes since 2016, the year of the EU membership referendum, when research consistently showed that immigration was the number one issue for British voters.
The latest findings indicate that most people take a balanced view on immigration, with some desire for control over migration from foreign countries but also an awareness of the benefits of certain types of immigration.
More than three-quarters of the public said they would be happy for the numbers of high-skilled workers from the EU (79%) or outside the EU (77%) to stay the same or increase, but just over half (51%) wanted to reduce lower-skilled migration from EU nations to the UK.
British Future director Sunder Katwala said: "Boris Johnson has an opportunity now to bring more light and less heat to the immigration debate - because of how attitudes have changed since the 2016 referendum.
"With the debate now more open, people can't really claim they're not allowed to talk about immigration. The question is what choices we should make."
Will priorities shift again in 2020?
The research followed the recent publication by the Home Office of a new, points-based system designed to control inbound migration after Brexit.
Under the scheme, migrants will have to meet criteria including an offer of a job in the UK with a minimum salary of £25,600, a clean criminal record and fluency in English.
Given the current economic situation in the UK, however, one of the key questions the government will have to answer is whether a shift in policy focus is required to stop the country slipping into recession.
The scale of the challenge facing countries around the world has been underlined by the recent action being taken by central banks, including the Bank of England (BoE) and the Federal Reserve, which have cut interest rates to reduce the cost of borrowing and keep credit flowing.
Andrew Sentance, a former member of the BoE's Monetary Policy Committee, told the BBC: "There was some criticism around the financial crisis that central banks didn't move quickly enough. I see this as a partly precautionary action for central banks to show that they are doing as much as possible to keep the wheels of the economy turning."
Global economic adversity was reflected on stock markets around the world today (March 16), with the FTSE 100 plunging by 7% in morning trading.
In Asia, Hong Kong's Hang Seng Index was down by 4% on the day, while the benchmark Shanghai Composite Index fell by 3.4%.
The Federal Reserve's decision to cut interest rates to almost zero has spooked investors in the US, with market futures indicating an opening slide of more than 1,000 points on the Dow Jones Industrial Average and a 4.8% slump on the S&P 500.