Brexit is not all about immigration – why has Theresa May made it her overriding priority?

Britons feel strongly about both free trade and immigration, which gives May a choice


A week ahead of the triggering of Article 50, British people still aren’t quite sure what they want from the negotiations.

According to new research from NatCen, published yesterday, there’s strong support for both ending freedom of movement (68 per cent in favour) and for maintaining free trade with the EU (88 per cent in favour). Unfortunately, EU leaders have repeatedly insisted that the two are mutually exclusive, forcing the UK government into a corner.

Conservative voters are the trickiest of all. As many as 93 per cent support free trade with the EU, while 81 per cent back an end to freedom of movement. This presents Theresa May with a political dilemma, but also, somewhat ironically, with a choice.

If her base is demanding two seemingly exclusive outcomes, and gave no clear indication of its priorities, she’s free to decide which risk to take. Or at least she was for as long as she kept her options open.

So why — before the referendum dust had even settled — did Theresa May make immigration control her overriding Brexit priority?

As early as her Conservative Party conference speech in October, the prime minister was clearly articulating a vision for Brexit in which trade was important, but immigration was paramount.

“I want it to give British companies the maximum freedom to trade with and operate in the Single Market – and let European businesses do the same here.  But let me be clear.  We are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration again.”

In other words, before the issue had been debated before parliament, before a formal plan had been drawn up and long before negotiations began, May had committed herself to an extremely restrictive course of action, from which she will find it highly difficult to retreat.

According to her version of events, this was the only viable option since the vote to Leave was all about immigration. But the NatCen data shows a more complex picture, in which over a third of Leave voters and three-quarters of Remain voters believe that free movement should be allowed in exchange for free trade.

To pursue that course — or at least leave the avenue open for negotiation — would have provoked a loud reaction from the Brexiteers, but would not be an impossible sell to the country. As in the referendum itself, the split on how to approach this key trade off is close enough to 50-50 and with the right messaging the government could surely bring another chunk of voters along with it.

The wrinkle appears when you look at the breakdown among Conservative voters, 55 per cent of whom would reject the possibility of accepting free movement for the sake of free trade. By contrast, 63 per cent of Labour voters would accept the same outcome, and a clear majority of Liberal Democrats.

Once again, it may be that a Tory prime mininster has chosen an extreme and dangerous path not because it’s supported by the country, but because it’s got the backing of the party base.

However, as Open Europe’s Pat McFadden puts it, ‘the government has promised a Brexit deal that will not damage our economy and put jobs at risk. They need to meet the tests they have set themselves.’

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

See: Labour vs the Lib Dems: Who has the right position on Brexit?

3 Responses to “Brexit is not all about immigration – why has Theresa May made it her overriding priority?”

  1. Will

    I see the blind are still leading the blind and the visually impaired public are happy out on the hills having their lambs.
    Not much difference between gambling and gambolling really.

  2. Craig Mackay

    Theresa May has long been almost obsessed by immigration. As Home Office minister it was one of her most overt failures, a complete inability to reduce immigration, mainly because our economy requires it. When she became Prime Minister it was simplest to focus on that because she was familiar with it. Despite the adulation of the right-wing media Theresa May is not actually very politically astute. She has focused on something which may be popular apparently but an obsession with that could be her downfall. I fear that like so many recent political decisions (and not just her’s) it was done without much thought.

    The most depressing aspect of all this is that she could have implemented the official EU rules about freedom of movement which are much more restrictive than the UK and indeed many other European countries have actually implemented.

    Working EU citizens are allowed in but non-economically active EU citizens can only stay longer than three months if they have sufficient finance and take out comprehensive sickness insurance policy. Benefits/welfare tourism (beloved of the right-wing media as a way of migrant bashing) is illegal and EU citizens who have not been working have no rights to benefits. Introducing these restrictions which are totally legal undercurrent EU rules and regulations would have taken the pressure off her although of course in reality they would have had little effect on the net migration level.

    You can read more about it here:

  3. John Machin

    Free movement has been a disaster for the working poor. It has been a jackpot for exploitative employers and landlords. Wage levels are not rising because employers have had an unlimited supply of cheap labour on tap (Marx’s “reserve army of labour”). As a Socialist I have been astonished at many on the Left’s support for free movement, it has destroyed any bargaining power the workforce still had.
    In response to the point about non-working EU citizens, I can assure you there are large numbers on benefits in our area and no attempts are made to stop their benefits or remove their right to stay.

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