Writing in this morning’s Financial Times, Amber Rudd has promised to pursue a post-Brexit immigration deal that “works for all”.
To that end, the Government is going to task the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), its independent advisers on the subject, “to carry out a detailed assessment of migration from the EU and the European Economic Area in relation to the economy in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.”
According to the Home Secretary, this will allow ministers to build up an accurate picture of the role of EU nationals in our economy, and therefore let them design a set of immigration rules which will minimise disruption once we leave the EU.
On the surface, this is a very sensible proposal – even if the timescale of the report means that it will be delivered only months before our formal departure from the EU at the end of the Article 50 process.
Yet by aiming her pitch almost exclusively at business, Rudd risks almost building her inquiry around a particular outcome, as well as repeating the very mistakes which have built up to make the immigration issue so potent.
The choice to set out the plan in the FT, a bastion of Europhilia, is suggestive, as are the specific appeals in the text, such as:
“Over the past year I have heard first-hand from business leaders and employers across a range of sectors how they value European citizens for labour, skills and ideas. I want to reassure all those who have outlined their views, either privately or publicly, that the government is listening and that we share their desire to continue to welcome those who help make the UK such a prosperous place to live.”
A similarly reassuring tone is struck by Brandon Lewis in The Times. The doesn’t appear to have been anybody put forward to write a supportive op-ed about this in a paper which supports substantially stronger controls on immigration.
Nobody disputes that business is important, nor that at least our exporting sector as a pro-EU flavour. But if this is how the Government intends to approach immigration it is marching straight into the trap dug for it by Nigel Farage, who earlier this week was accusing ministers of ‘betraying Brexit’.
Brexit was not a decision by or for business. It was everybody’s decision, and the various votes reflected competing concerns just as valid as those whom Rudd is trying to reassure today. The shock vote was delivered by millions of voters who don’t have a well-funded lobbying operation to steer Government policy, but they still matter.
If ministers want to win the argument for a relatively liberal post-Brexit immigration regime (and it should), it must take pains to demonstrate that “the government is listening” to those voters too. Rudd’s census should be expanded, or a parallel exercise conducted, to assess the impact of EU migration on their concerns such as infrastructure, public services, community cohesion, and housing.
The findings of such an exercise, if seen to be conducted rigorously and given equal weight to the business side, could provide the Government with the leeway to adopt elements of the old Remain position, targeting resources at particular areas of stress without clamping down on immigration as a whole.
But if instead ministers look like they’re reverting to type and prioritising the views of business over those of leave voters, they are opening the door to disillusion – and to UKIP. Given how important pro-Brexit voters are to the Government’s current electoral coalition, they must not let that happen.