During the referendum, Leavers loudly defended the rights of EU citizens legally resident in the UK. Now many pro-Brexit MPs are not practising what they preach. They have so far refused to back legislation requiring the government to guarantee these citizens’ rights.
We’ve gathered below some of the statements made before and after June 23 by Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and eight other prominent Brexiters.
When a Number 10 spokesperson suggested in May 2016 that it was “possible” a vote to leave would endanger EU citizens’ rights in the UK, Peter Bone called it “absurd”. The Tory MP insisted that “any EU citizen that is legally here if we come out of the EU would absolutely have the right to remain here.”
Jacob Rees-Mogg said it was “really grubby politics” to worry people who had established “a legitimate right to be here”. He told PoliticsHome: “It would be straightforwardly immortal [sic] to deport people who have come here legally and who have established their lives here.” Rees-Mogg also called on the government to give EU citizens an “unequivocal guarantee” they would be allowed to remain in the case of Brexit.
On June 1, Vote Leave itself issued the following statement signed by Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Gisela Stuart and Priti Patel: “There will be no change for EU citizens already lawfully resident in the UK. These EU citizens will automatically be granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK and will be treated no less favourably than they are at present.”
The reassurances continued immediately after the referendum.
On July 3 Conservative MP Peter Lilley and UKIP’s only MP Douglas Carswell signed a letter in the Telegraph urging “the government, opposition parties and every candidate standing to be the next Conservative Party leader – and hence prime minister – to make an unequivocal statement that EU migrants currently living in the UK are welcome here, and that changes would apply only to new migrants.”
The next day Tory leadership challenger Andrea Leadsom, now a cabinet minister, declared: “I commit today to guaranteeing the rights of our EU friends who have already come here to live and work. We must give them certainty, there is no way they will be bargaining chips in our negotiations.”
Then, on 6 July, the Commons passed a motion which asked the government to “commit today that EU nationals currently living in the UK shall have the right to remain”. Only two MPs voted against.
Among those to speak during the debate was Johnson, then a backbench MP. He said: “I would like to put on record what I think has been said already – that countless times the Vote Leave campaign gave exactly this reassurance to everybody from EU countries living and working here, and it is very, very disappointing that that should be called into question. I think it is absolutely right to issue the strongest possible reassurance to EU nationals in this country, not just for moral or humanitarian reasons, but for very, very sound economic reasons as well. They are welcome, they are necessary, they are a vital part of our society, and I will passionately support this motion tonight.”
Outspoken Tory Brexiter John Redwood also agreed that “we need to offer reassurance”. Alongside Johnson, Redwood and 251 other MPs who voted in favour of the motion (although in the knowledge that it would be non-binding and have no effect on government policy) was Carswell.
The Brexit bill
Since Theresa May became prime minister and set herself against guaranteeing EU citizens’ rights unilaterally, all these Brexiters have changed their tune – even UKIP’s Carswell and Labour’s Stuart.
Bone, Carswell, Gove, Johnson, Leadsom, Lilley, Patel, Redwood, Rees-Mogg and Stuart all voted against new clause 57 when it was debated by the House of Commons, which said: “Nothing in this Act shall affect the continuation of those residence rights enjoyed by EU citizens lawfully resident in the United Kingdom on 23 June 2016.”
InFacts approached each MP mentioned in this article for comment. At time of publication only Jacob Rees-Mogg had replied, saying: “The amendment was irrelevant to the Bill. It may be appropriate in the Great Repeal Bill.”
The House of Lords has, however, passed an amendment saying, within three months of the act passing, the government must bring forward proposals to ensure that EU citizens legally resident here lose none of their rights.
Those Brexiters who once spoke so passionately about EU citizens’ rights have one final chance to practise what they preach when the Brexit bill comes back to the Commons next week.
Edited by Hugo Dixon