Has the Brexit migration debate really shifted?

by Luke Lythgoe | 10.04.2017

“You cannot control immigration overall when there is free movement to Britain from Europe.” That was the uncompromising position from Theresa May as she laid out her goals for Brexit back in January.

Then last week, in the Saudi capital Riyadh, she hinted that free movement might have to remain in place as part of a transitional agreement – or “implementation phase” – after the UK left the EU. She talked of “a period of time when businesses and governments are adjusting systems and so forth”.

Her foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, was more explicit. When asked by Reuters if Britain would accept full free movement of people during an implementation phase, he said it was possible. He also added that he was “one of the few British politicians to speak up on the benefits of immigration”, adding: “We don’t want to close the doors. We simply want to have a system that is balanced.”

They appear to be talking about a temporary measure – “done in two years” according to Johnson. It doesn’t signal a climbdown from the Conservatives’ “tens of thousands” net migration target, and fits with May’s admission that “it would take some time to get there” in her inaugural Prime Minister’s Questions.

Anyone unsure how hardline Brexiters feel about all this need look no further than Leave.EU’s Twitter account.

As the government seems to smudge its red lines in pursuit of a “deep and special partnership” with Europe, pressure groups on either side are aiming to force the debate.

In the pro-European corner there is the Drop The Target campaign, launched by Open Britain and the Independent and supported by a cross-party group of MPs. Sensing an opportunity to erode the government’s hardline immigration stance, they urge the prime minister to drop the Tories’ manifesto target on the basis that it “will never be achieved” and attempting to do so “would damage the UK economy and leave the vulnerable worse off”.

Opposing that view is Leave Means Leave, a pro-Brexit campaign group backed by several former Tory ministers. A report authored by former UKIP immigration spokesperson Steven Woolfe calls for an even more dramatic reduction in net migration, to 50,000 per year, using a system of work visas. It also calls for a five-year freeze on unskilled immigration after Brexit and an immediate cut-off date for EU citizens’ rights announced in April 2017. Other proposals include a separate body to assess “safe” NHS staffing levels, and six-month temporary visas for agricultural workers if required.

There are other migration battlegrounds beyond the top-line target itself. How will it work in practice? The kind of micromanagement advocated by Leave Means Leave could generate a lot of extra bureaucracy and gum up the economy. Should international students be included in the migration statistics? Theresa May thinks so, but many in her cabinet do not. The role of training UK workers also needs to be explored in more depth: are there enough Brits interested in working in agriculture, healthcare or hospitality?

At the moment the government is only talking in terms of a transitional post-Brexit agreement. As yet it remains unclear whether ministers will begin leaning more generally towards one or other of the groups in this debate.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon