The divisive issue of immigration dominated last year’s referendum campaign and it will similarly define Theresa May’s delivery of Brexit. With Article 50 now triggered, the clamour is growing for her to set out her vision and the nettle must be grasped.
Downing Street faces two significant challenges: one of party management and one of expectation management among Leave voters susceptible to a betrayal narrative.
Heretofore the prime minister has been allowed considerable room for manoeuvre by Conservative Brexiteers – not least the disciplined European Research Group caucus, the 60-odd Tory MPs led by Steve Baker who organise via WhatsApp. They have demonstrated patience and avoided any attempts to force Mrs May’s hand.
The multiplicity of views that exist among Tory MPs on the subject is beginning to surface, however. Last week a split emerged in the leading hard-Brexit pressure group Leave Means Leave, after it produced a report calling for a five-year ban on low-skilled workers coming to Britain after the nation withdraws from the EU.
Some Conservative figures in the group privately distanced themselves from the document, saying that at least some inward migration of low-skilled workers will be needed after Brexit.
Further along the spectrum still are pro-free market, ultra-liberal Tories – those who have always insisted that sovereignty was the key issue at the heart of the Eurosceptic movement – who support an even more liberalised attitude towards migrants.
As the government draws up a white paper on immigration in post-Brexit Britain, intra-party wranglings over the issue are heating up. Industry is also lobbying publicly for greater clarity over Mrs May’s vision, led by those sectors that rely heavily on EU migrant workers, including hospitality, agriculture and the NHS.
At the weekend it emerged that the Home Office is considering the introduction of “barista visas”, which would allow 18 to 30-year-old European citizens to work in the UK in the hospitality sector for two years.
Crucially the visas would not allow European migrants access to benefits or free housing when free movement within the EU ends after Brexit.
Questions remain about the feasibility of the proposal, which would be an extension of an existing programme that grants visas to young people from eight wealthy nations including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan and Hong Kong.
Whether nationals from poorer EU countries will find modestly paid hospitality jobs in the UK desirable once they are banned from accessing in-work benefits or the opportunity to settle long term remains to be seen. The average salary of a barista is only about £16,400, according to employment advisory website Glassdoor.
Such visas might thus contribute to a fall in net inward migration, but could also leave the hospitality industry, in which the coffee business alone boasts around 110,000 jobs, short staffed.
Nonetheless they would also fail to restrict migration enough to satisfy Brexit hardliners who want a ban on low-skilled migrants entering the UK for years after the nation’s withdrawal from the bloc, arguing that such constraints would lead to better opportunities for the 826,000 young British people aged 16 to 24 who are not working.
As in the referendum campaign, the debate remains economics versus immigration. But since the British public voted Leave in the plebiscite, many Brexiteers insist the latter must be the priority.
Once freedom of movement ends, if Mrs May grants exceptions for the hospitality sector and all other industries that warn of implosion without a steady supply of migrant labour, it is hard to see how she will meet the government’s long-standing pledge to reduce net inward migration to below 100,000 people a year.
April 18th, 2017: Times