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?

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