It is perhaps ironic that the very lady who first coined the term ‘Nasty Party’ to describe the Conservative Party of yesterday is the candidate attracting such opprobrium for her position on immigration.
Unlike most of her rivals, including Liam Fox (who is otherwise taking a strong line on free movement), Theresa May has refused to offer EU nationals living in the UK a cast-iron guarantee that they can continue living here after Brexit.
This isn’t to say that the front-runner for the Tory leadership is talking about ‘sending them home’. In her interview on Peston she said:
“But of course, as part of the negotiation, we will need to look at this question of people who are here in the UK from the EU, and I want to be able to ensure that we’re able to not just guarantee a position for those people, but guarantee the position for British citizens who are over in other member states, in other countries in Europe and living there.”
This reluctance to guarantee the position of EU nationals is going down very badly in the press, and doesn’t seem to reflect the wishes of the electorate either – British Future polling finds 77 per cent even of Leave voters favour letting people who are already here continue to live here.
Mark Wallace has previously set out how the Leave campaign, and UKIP, made it clear that it was not a vote to remove EU nationals already living here.
Why might the Home Secretary be struggling with a commitment that her rivals appear to have no trouble making?
It could be that, after so long in the Home Office, May is most familiar with the details and reality of the immigration issue and therefore has the best grasp of how it might play out in Brexit negotiations.
After all “protecting the status of EU citizens in the UK”, as British Future puts it, doesn’t necessarily simply involve having the right to continue living here: their current status also allows them to be joined by family members and draw on the welfare system, for example.
She is also on-record as anticipating a surge of EU immigration prior to Brexit changing the rules, and be trying to discourage that, exhibiting some of that ‘steeliness’ and toughness as a negotiator which are so often cited by her supporters.
If this is the case, the Home Secretary would do well to clarify what her red line position on EU nationals is: work, but not welfare? Protection for those who moved here before the referendum, but not after?
Whatever it is, both Conservative members and EU nationals living in Britain deserve to know. The former to make an informed choice on our next leader, and the latter to be spared years of needless uncertainty about their futures here.