Comparative scholarship tacitly assumes immigration politics to be relatively rigid. A state's immigration policy legacy is said to institutionalise policy preferences, thereby making it difficult to implement lasting reforms that are inconsistent with that legacy. This presents difficulties for states with restrictionist legacies wanting to implement liberal reforms in response to the emergence of labour shortages or demographic problems. The supposed rigidity of immigration politics is scrutinised in this article through a systematic process analysis of developments in the United Kingdom over the past decade, where the Blair government confounded the UK's characterisation as a ‘reluctant immigration state’ to implement various liberal work visa reforms. The uncoordinated nature of policymaking and implementation, and the limited involvement of state and societal institutions in the reform process, reflect the UK's historical experience with restrictionist policies, and help to explain the subsequent reintroduction of strict visa controls. The case demonstrates that policy legacies indeed play a significant role in defining the character of the policymaking institutions that shape a state's immigration politics.