|What should Britain’s immigration policy look like after Brexit? As the aftershocks of Donald Trump’s cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base rumble across the Eurasian continental plate, it is worth stopping to consider this question, which may yet have far more influence on what Britain will look like in the decades to come. What Jeremy Warner has called the “grand coalition” of liberal and nationalist Brexiteers cannot hold forever.
This weekend Leave Means Leave, the hard Brexit group set up in the wake of last June to safeguard the revolution, published a report on this theme. Written by Steven Woolfe, who quit as Ukip’s immigration spokesman last year after a “scuffle” with a fellow MEP, it proposes a points-based regime which would open Britain to students but impose a five year ban on unskilled immigration. The only exception would be a six-month temporary permit scheme for seasonal agricultural workers, capped at 50,000 per year. Skilled immigration would be uncapped, but subject to strict conditions: each applicant would have to pass an English test and prove they had a job offer with an annual salary of £35,000, a five-year private insurance contract, and savings in the bank.
Leave Means Leave backers Owen Paterson and Gerald Howarth back the document, but others, according to the Times, do not. And Theresa May continues to leave the door open to a more liberal policy, at least at first. She responded to a direct question about free movement last week with this answer: “Once we’ve got the deal, once we’ve agreed what the new relationship will be for the future, it will be necessary for there to be a period of time when businesses and governments are adjusting systems and so forth.”
Conservative supporters are very clear. They want immigration to come down – “no ifs”, as David Cameron once put it, and “no buts”. According to new polling, 76 per cent of them say it is “essential” for it to fall. Nor can they be bought off: suggestions that immigrants should be barred from welfare, required to learn English, prevented from “undercutting” wages, or that high-immigration areas should receive extra money from the government all failed to budge a clear majority in favour of reducing the overall numbers. (Labour should take note that these reforms did work for their supporters.)
The electorate as a whole broadly agrees, with 58 per cent saying it is “essential” to bring down immigration. And according to Lord Ashcroft, a plurality – if not a majority – would prioritise access to (let’s assume they mean “membership of”) the Single Market over “controlling immigration”. Veteran pollster John Curtice found the opposite, claiming that 54 of us would accept free movement in order to secure free trade. But the same research still found that most people think we can have both; we should expect these numbers to change if they turn out to be wrong.
The re-defections of Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless away from Ukip indicate that Theresa May has successfully stolen at least some of their thunder. My guess is that, having seen how the purple peril on his right flank bounced David Cameron into a referendum he never wanted, she is electing to lock down that front forevermore. Yet there is some evidence that what she gains on the Right, she is losing in the centre, with claims of a Lib Dem insurgency in the seats Mr Cameron won in 2015. I wouldn’t rule out more prevarication on her part.
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