On Tuesday we shall, at last, get Mrs May’s version of Brexit. We need clarity on three related points in particular: control of immigration; where that leaves an EU internal market that our partners – or rather, opponents – say can include us only if we accept free movement of people; and whether we stay in the customs union that includes the EU and Turkey, and is distinct from the internal market. Unless she can give distinct direction on these points, the pressure on her and her reputation will increase – from all sides.
What Mrs May said in a television interview last Sunday was interpreted as meaning we would control our borders, even if that entailed losing access to the internal market. The briefing now is that that is the case. However much it horrifies bien‑pensants, what motivated many Britons to vote Leave last June was a desire to set our own immigration policy, and not be compelled to accept that of a foreign power. This remains a matter of enormous public concern, and any outcome that leaves us without that control would cause huge political trouble.
It also looks as though we shall be leaving the customs union, which is quite right. Remaining part of it would leave the EU negotiating trade deals on our behalf. It would prevent us doing lucrative deals in commercial areas favourable to us – notably our services sector – but also would prevent us from concluding free-trade agreements with countries that do not enjoy them with the EU. It would rule out autonomy on tariffs, while leaving a UK outside the EU with even less say than now about what those tariffs were. Instead, Britain would be bound by a common external tariff. The greater prosperity we should gain by leaving the EU – by allowing much cheaper imports from non‑EU countries and opening up new, tariff‑free markets in such countries for us – would be lost.
The appointment of Liam Fox as the minister who will, eventually, be responsible for negotiating new trade deals would seem to suggest Mrs May has never contemplated staying in the customs union. And with access to the internal market ruled out by the promise to control our borders, it would seem that she would be wise to announce on Tuesday that no deal is better than a bad deal; that we are a free-trading nation willing to have free trade with the EU; and if the EU doesn’t want that it would, as Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England said last week, be a greater loss to them than to us. (Mr Carney’s conversion on this matter is remarkable, but does nothing to alter my view that he is a mountebank who should make way for a replacement whose hands are not stained with the grime of political miscalculation.)
But on Tuesday we must also hear not just that Britain will take back control of its borders, but how. MPs tell me their constituents are complaining to them about the lack of clarity on this issue for two reasons. The first is that they wonder when the apparently unending stream of immigrants from Europe is going to end: not because they are racist or illiberal, but because of the pressure the additional numbers since 2004 have put on infrastructure, schools and, in particular, the imploding National Health Service. The second is that people who have settled here under the policy of free movement fear they will be asked to get a work permit, or to leave.
To take the second point first: if we are to retain a reputation as a civilised and decent people, the Prime Minister should announce on Tuesday that everyone who has settled here legally as a national of one of the other 27 EU countries will be allowed to live and work here permanently. There can be no question of foreigners from the rest of Europe being treated as a sort of bargaining chip in the forthcoming negotiations. And the Prime Minister should invite the other 27 countries to agree to reciprocity, allowing British subjects who have settled in Europe the right to live and work there for the rest of their lives.
However – and this is where the Government cannot avoid taking a hard decision – a cut-off point must be announced for those who are coming here. It would be contrary to our customs and the precedent of our laws to have any element of retrospectivity in this. Even though those who have come here since June 24 will have been well aware that Britain is on its way out of the EU, they have entered under existing arrangements and those arrangements must be honoured. Nor would it be remotely sensible to announce a cut-off date in the future, since that would be likely to encourage a possibly unmanageable inflow of migrants right up to the deadline.
The only sensible option would be for Mrs May to act like a Chancellor of the Exchequer increasing the duty on petrol or whisky, and to say on Tuesday that from midnight any immigrant from the EU would not be guaranteed permanent residence or the right to work, but would need to apply for them like anyone from anywhere else.
She could hold out the possibility of reciprocal arrangements with selected countries, but otherwise it would be a level playing field. And, even if (as we should) we have a reciprocal arrangement with the Irish Republic, she must have urgent talks with the Irish government about how the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland will operate. It cannot be a back door into Britain.
None of this is easy: but firm and decisive action on these questions now will avoid misunderstandings later on, and leave no one in any doubt of the direction of travel. And if the EU doesn’t like any of it, it should be reminded that its utter inflexibility and insistence on giving David Cameron a joke “deal” last year is what has brought us to this pass. Once we are under way, our future should be bright.
Occasionally one wonders what level of stupidity is required to become an Oxford professor. A clear indication comes from a physicist, Joshua Silver, who reported Amber Rudd’s speech about immigration to the Tory conference in October as a hate crime. He hadn’t, incidentally, heard it.
Universities are supposed to be cauldrons of free speech and debate, but people such as Prof Silver have a toxic influence on impressionable students when they use “hate crime” to describe a reasonable political discourse. “Hate crime” is a ludicrous concept in any case when we have laws against incitement. Universities are becoming beacons of intolerance, as the list of important subjects deemed offensive becomes longer, and self-righteous little twerps in student unions bellyache on about needing “safe spaces”. It is amazing how my generation survived in these places. Prof Silver should be charged with wasting police time; and universities that restrict freedom of speech should lose public money.
A wise colleague summed up last week the legacy of Barack Obama’s eight years in the White House, which end this week: Donald Trump. It says much for what Mr Obama has achieved, and the way he achieved it, that his country felt the need to elect a complete outsider of questionable reputation to lead it. From a British perspective, we seem to be losing a president who not so much disliked this country as seemed to find it hard to take it seriously, which should give us pause for thought.
In terms of the dismal contribution we make to Nato, he had a point. However, for us his real legacy is that his refusal to engage seriously in foreign policy, notably with Russia, has made the world a more dangerous place than it was in 2009. America’s inertia, first in Ukraine, then in the Middle East, has left the odious Vladimir Putin cock of the walk. Even more alarming is that Mr Obama’s successor seems minded to leave him there: but it would have been good for the world if he had been denied that position of importance in the first place. Thank you and good night, Mr Obama.
I write about Jeremy Corbyn with a heavy heart, having been brought up not to mock the afflicted. But his supposed “relaunch” last week, his U-turn on immigration and his commitment to a Marxist-style maximum wage forcibly remind us of the tragedy of a democracy without an opposition. Then, on Friday, another of his sensible MPs, Tristram Hunt, announced he was off to run the Victoria and Albert Museum. I thought Dr Hunt would be one of those MPs who would join a massive breakaway from Labour and form a party that might get elected: but they are dropping like flies.
January 14th, 2017: Telegraph