Theresa May had much to say yesterday, in her Brexit speech, about regulation, but nothing much about immigration – a matter which affects the economy, culture and public services; and which was the second most important issue in the EU referendum campaign. Indeed, it was all bound up with the first: taking back control.
No wonder she wanted to avoid it. Until this week, the Prime Minister’s policy was that EU nationals would be entitled to stay on indefinitely and eventually acquire the right to permanent residence up until Brexit day. And as at present, anyone coming to work, study or be self-sufficient would also acquire the right to bring their family.
On Wednesday, this position was quietly shelved. These entitlements will now be extended until the end of transition – whenever that turns out to be. Why the change? There seem to be four main reasons.
First, May wants to get out of talks about transition and into talks about trade as soon as possible. Giving way on the rights of EU migrants might help this to happen. Second, there was hostility to the plan among some businesses. Third, the Home Office might not have its systems prepared in time. (What’s that we were saying about being Ready on Day One?)
Fourth, Downing Street is no longer preoccupied, as it was in David Cameron’s day, by a threat from the right, given the collapse of UKIP. But there is another factor at work which is well worth pondering – namely, the lack of a champion at Cabinet level for lower immigration, especially among the Brexiteers.
Boris Johnson has a long record of liberalism on the matter, despite his campaigning during the EU referendum, having several times called for an amnesty for illegal migrants. Liam Fox has stressed that “the key argument around immigration is really an economic one”. Michael Gove tends to keep his counsel on the issue. David Davis is the most immigration-sceptic of the leading Brexiteers.
None the less, the Prime Minister seems to have been able to beat her retreat without a major discussion in either her “War Cabinet” or the larger one. Compare and contrast with all the toing-and-froing, briefing, leaking and debate about alignment and divergence.
The way was smoothed for May by the drop in net migration from Europe – down below 100,000 for the first time in six years. On the one hand, there is certainly no “Brexodus”: more migrants are still arriving in Britain from the EU countries than are leaving. On the other, the actual number of those coming has fallen.
Overall, net EU migration since the referendum has fallen by about half – from 190,000 the year before to about 90,000 now. That is a big drop. None the less, 220,000 people from EU countries came here last year. If that rate continues into any transition, it means a lot of people will be entitled to permanent residence, and to bring their families, who might not have been before May’s noiseless U-turn.
Many Tory and Leave voters – and others – will agree with Migration Watch’s take: “This is a complete capitulation to EU demands, as yet with no parallel commitment from EU member states. This will lead to a scale of immigration to the UK that the electorate voted against and certainly don’t want to see.”