Theresa May doesn’t know what to do about Brexit – and immigration is her smokescreen

The government doesn't know what 'Brexit means Brexit' means


After a summer thinking hard about what Brexit means, the cabinet met at Chequers yesterday to pool all their ideas. And once again they concluded that Brexit means…Brexit.

Indeed, commentators at home and abroad have identified that for all Theresa May’s bluster about ‘the opportunity to forge a new positive role for the UK in the world’, she and her government don’t know how to proceed with the negotiations, and they don’t have the expertise or the personnel to figure it out.

So May needs something to distract from her government’s confusion and panic and, inevitably, that something is immigration.

Following the meeting, a Number 10 spokesperson commented:

“Several cabinet members made it clear that we are leaving the EU but not leaving Europe, with a decisive view that the model we are seeking is one unique to the United Kingdom and not an off the shelf solution. This must mean controls on the numbers of people who come to Britain from Europe but also a positive outcome for those who wish to trade goods and services.”

By laying out this red line, the prime minister is playing to the right-wing gallery by prioritising immigration over all else and — taking her cue from the Leave campaign — glossing over the reality that stopping freedom of movement means losing single market membership.

Of course, immigration was a major issue in the EU referendum campaign and the left cannot afford to ignore the concerns of voters with regard to free movement.

However, the right should also be called out for relentlessly exaggerating the significance of immigration in service of its short-term political goals.

While immigration was a highly significant factor in the referendum campaign, it was not the sole driver of the result.

Polling shows that the primary motivation of 34 per cent of Leave voters was controlling immigation, while significantly more (49 per cent) attributed their vote to ‘the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK’.

If we extrapolate from these findings, controlling immigration was the primary determining factor for just over 17 per cent of those who voted in the referendum.

This is consistent with analysis by the Migration Observatory, which suggested that although a majority of voters want greater restrictions on migration, just a quarter are passionately anti-immigration, regardless of the impacts that cutting migrant numbers might have.

For many others, concerns about immigration are intertwined with economic concerns. For that segment, if controlling immigration means facing trade and business penalties, they may reconsider.

On those terms, it’s surely an error for the prime minister to establish controls on free movement as her first red line, thereby locking in Britain’s exit from the single market, and the economic downturn that will inevitably follow.

Of course, the key detail is that May faces overwhelming pressure from the representatives of that anti-immigration 15 per cent, within her government, among her core voters, and in the press.

This early promise is a sop to that Conservative constituency, thrown out to distract attention from the government’s Brexit flounderings.

So far, May is not making a success of Brexit, and her populist promises shouldn’t save her.

Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter.

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