U-turn on migration target raises hope of soft Brexit

by Hugo Dixon | 20.07.2016

Boris Johnson and Amber Rudd have signalled the government may abandon David Cameron’s foolish migration target. That could make it easier to avoid a hard Brexit.

Rudd, the new home secretary, said the government’s “aim” was to reduce net migration to “sustainable levels”, according to the Telegraph. Despite being pressed on whether this involved a change in the government’s old target of cutting net migration to the tens of thousands, the new home secretary stuck to the line that the most important thing was to bring migration down to “sustainable levels”.

Quizzed later, Johnson, the new foreign secretary, said that it was “entirely right to be careful about committing to numbers because one doesn’t want to be in a position where you are disappointing people again”. Theresa May’s official spokeswoman said that “the prime minister does see sustainable levels as down to the tens of thousands” but refused to commit to a target.

This shift in position by three of the government’s most senior ministers is potentially very important. Cameron’s oft-repeated target of cutting net migration to the tens of thousands was an albatross round his neck. Last year net migration (the number of people coming to the UK minus the number leaving) was 333,000. The failure to hit the goal undermined the former prime minister’s credibility – and was one of the reasons he lost the referendum.

It will be almost impossible to meet this target even if we impose the most draconian measures on leaving the EU – given that net migration from the rest of the world was 188,000 last year. This is why Michael Gove, the former Vote Leave campaign chair, was selling snake oil when he committed Brexiteers to the same goal.

This is also why it is significant that the new government – including Brexiteer, Johnson – is edging away from the target. In particular, it could give the government wiggle room to allow some form of free movement of citizens between the EU and Britain. Several permutations are possible – for example, free movement only for workers, or only until a cap is hit. May has left herself some wiggle room on free movement, saying it can’t continue “as it has done up to now”.

If the UK is prepared to allow free movement in some form, the EU may allow it access to the single market in some form too. The economic hit of Brexit would then be mitigated.

There are admittedly lots of ifs and buts in this scenario. But the latest statements increase the chance of a soft rather than a hard Brexit.

Edited by Rachel Franklin