Senior Vote Leave strategists were astounded by what focus groups were saying, long before the referendum campaign began, about an Australian-style points system to control immigration. I remember one telling me about a particular session in which members began to debate in detail how Australia manages it, complete with details of what happened to friends when they applied to emigrate there. Its popularity played an important part in the immigration proposal which the organisation released on June 15, as part of a six-point manifesto, only eight days before the vote took place. “The [Immigration] Bill would end the discrimination against non-EU citizens,” it said, “and create a genuine points-based immigration system in which the possession of suitable skills is a key element”.
ConservativeHome had got there earlier. In 2014, we produced our own manifesto, which called for such a system in very similar words: “A points-based system should be used to prioritise the immigration of workers with skills in short supply.” Theresa May read it herself, and it was made clear to us that she doesn’t support the idea – not because it would be too tough, but because it wouldn’t be tough enough. The Australian system, she argues, gives migrants automatic entry if they have the right number of points – whether or not they have a job lined up, and that simply won’t do for Britain. Andrew Green of Migration Watch has argued on this site that it is “extremely complex, applicable only to job seekers (employers have a different route), and only covers 15 per cent of all migrants”. It is, he said, “fool’s gold” – designed for Australia’s policy of having higher, not lower, migration.
She has now repeated her view – and thus given Fleet Street a lot of fun this morning. Boris Johnson is the most senior Vote Leave supporter in Cabinet, and can thus be said to have signed up to a policy that May has rejected, along with fellow Cabinet members Chris Grayling, Priti Patel, Andrea Leadsom and Liam Fox. The suggestion of a present difference between the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary over a points system could be right. It has already been reported that the latter has clashed with Philip Hammond about the economy. He has also been pressing the view within government that NHS spending should be raised further when Britain leaves the EU – another part of that six-point Vote Leave Plan.
On Saturday, the Times claimed that the Johnson has written to May highlighting “four areas that should be non-negotiable in the upcoming Brexit negotiations: proper controls over immigration from the bloc, an end to compulsory contributions to the EU budget, a stop to more EU legislation applying to Britain and the removal of the authority of the European Court of Justice”. The paper read it as setting out his own red lines; his camp insist he was describing those of voters. Wherever the truth may lie, one point is very clear. Had Johnson won the leadership election, his Government might reasonably have been by voters as a Vote Leave Government, and expected to deliver its six-point programme. But he did not. May was a Remainer. So were a majority of her Cabinet. She is under no obligation to deliver a proposal that she has never signed up to.
But whatever your view, voters’ interest, when it comes to immigration control, lies less in what politicians have said in the past than what they will do in the future. Supporters of a points system will claim that one can be organised to produce less immigration, not more. Backers of using work permits instead will reply, as the Prime Minister does, that they deal better with the relationship between entry and work. Either way, however, the referendum message from the British people was unambiguous: they want less immigration and more control. May didn’t deliver lower net migration as Home Secretary. She knows that she must make up for that failure as Prime Minister. This is plainly why we’re reading that she wants a bespoke Brexit deal – though whether it seeks to curtail or end free movement is unclear.