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

  1. CR

    Mmm… Its rather early days for this sort of stuff. Its the first meeting back after the summer hols. and its still a new PM with a new cabinet. Even if they are Tories, let’s be sensible !!!

    I would like to see Brexit-MAX rather than any pro-EU fudge. It will give Labour far more scope for economic and social reform in the future once the current leadership problems are long-gone and we have a party that is acceptable to the voting public as a government.

  2. David Davies

    Fear of immigration was the main driver behind the lies told by the outers, who really did not think that they would have to face up to the fine mess they’ve gotten us into. They gave the impression that millions would be available for the NHS within days of an out vote, when the grim reality is that it will take years to unravel the spaghetti.

    It is ironic that Saint Theresa is willing to press the nuclear button that would vapourise thousands, but not the Article 50 button which would only be the start of 2 years of utter chaos. Would you put Curly, Larry and Mo in charge of such a project with any hope of success?

  3. Imran Khan

    Clearly you are not the David Davies. A silly article from Naive who, as far as I can see, is trying to build a portfolio for a job with The Guardian. Thin gruel indeed.

  4. ted

    As written far to early guess what will eventually happen, but I would draw from the comments that the pro Brexit side are divided by what they want. I was out with a group of friends recently, I suggest these might be typical, I gently raised the subject of what they wanted, regardless of their aims no two agreed with each other. It has come as somewhat as a surprise the Government, indeed the most right wing in my life time, does not know what it wants. It shows how supine the press and media is by the easy ride the Government is at present getting, delay Article 50 till next year? No problem, when you are ready.

    Not forgetting we need to get 27 other countries to agree with a final document. While that is going on we need to get new agreements with other countries, not impossible but not done over night. I have always wondered what goods New Zealand and Australia are looking forward to buying and what they will be selling us, still time will tell.

  5. ted francis

    All this bravado of making a success of trading with the “outside world” is gob-smackingly absurd. As a member of the EU we have/had an open door to a receptive market of 500 million…. and we’re trying to slam the door in our own face. Where apart from Asia where will we find a single market beckoning us in? Australia? New Zealand? Their combined population of men, women, children, ‘roos and dingoes is under 30m.
    London as the world’s financial centre is going to lose out to either Europe (Germany and Poland are already making noises), Hong Kong or New York.
    And our sieve-like borders are really going to leak when the French close the jungle and move controls across the Channel.
    Where will Boris, Mick ‘n’ Mike, Dave be on the day of reckoning?

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