Brexit can’t put out the fires it started on immigration

PUBLISHED: 02:04 07 March 2017 | UPDATED: 02:04 07 March 2017

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Despite all the promises made by Brexiteers, immigration may even rise as a result of the referendum

Britain has a successful economy because it is open to clever, talented people from overseas. That is not a snippet from Tony Blair’s recent speech nor a pitch for votes made by Nick Clegg at the height of the referendum campaign. They are the wise, insightful words of the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis, on a recent visit to Estonia.

The door to low-skilled migrants wanting to work in Britain’s hotels, restaurants, in social care and on its farms, he said, would remain open after Brexit. The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, has also confirmed that there would be no dramatic fall in immigration if we leave.

With those words in mind, think about those TV interviews we have all seen. A journalist travels to a Leave stronghold, camera crew in tow, to speak to voters. We are tired of being ignored, one says. There are too many immigrants, another adds, as the journalist nods encouragingly.

The Leave campaign certainly did not ignore their complaints. It is the reason we had leaflets implying that tens of millions of people were on their way from Albania, Serbia and Turkey. By June 23, Leave campaigners were not so much blowing on dog whistles to get their anti-immigration message across as yelling into loudhailers.

They had no doubt focus-grouped their messages and worked out that if they kept shovelling coal onto that particular fire they could attract just enough votes to limp over the finish line ahead of Remain.

The problem now facing Theresa May is that the toxic fumes from that fire still hang in the air. Fear and anger worked at winning the referendum, but they make for terrible policy. That wedge of Leave voters for whom immigration is everything now believe they have a champion in Downing Street. But after years of feeling let down by Westminster career politicians – a sentiment ruthlessly exploited by the Westminster career politicians behind Leave – what we now hear from Davis and Rudd suggests those voters are about to be let down again.

One reason for this is that our potential new trading partners want to make it easier for their own nationals to live and work here. Australia’s top diplomat in London has said his country wants a relaxation of immigration rules for Australians.

India has made it repeatedly clear that it wants more visas in exchange for any trade pact. And when the prime minister flew out for that awkward holding of hands with the new American president, she took with her the idea of making it easier for Americans to come here. Instead of slamming the door on Europeans, it looks like we will be opening several new ones.

And if we want to trade with the EU on anything more than catastrophic WTO terms (to borrow Philip Hammond’s description) then all the indications are that it will not be just hotel receptionists, waiters and farm labourers who will continue to be free to cross the Channel in search of work. The Home Secretary accepts immigration will not fall dramatically, but it is beginning to look like it might even rise.

Even if we could put an end to EU migration, why would we? Take the NHS. During the referendum campaign Vote Leave argued that EU immigration puts extra strain on our hospitals. In my experience, EU nationals are far more likely to be the ones treating me than the people sitting alongside me in the waiting room. A look at the numbers backs that up: 60,000 people working in the NHS, just in England, are nationals of other EU countries. That includes 10,000 doctors and 22,000 nurses. The pressure on the NHS comes not from foreigners but from our own ageing population.

If cutting immigration is such a great idea, why has net migration from outside the EU – over which the UK has total control – been historically higher than net migration from within the EU? The answer is that immigration is actually good and necessary, and most politicians know that. Until now however it has been convenient for too many of them to feign sympathy with sceptical voters and claim misleadingly that they are powerless to do anything about it in the face of the Brussels bogeyman.

Clearly, many voted Leave because of concerns about immigration. They were promised control, and deep cuts in numbers too. Since taking office, Theresa May has done nothing to prepare those voters for the give-and-take that lies ahead. She continues instead to stoke up expectations, that we can have our cake and eat it too. When those expectations are inevitably dashed, it looks like Remain voters will be joined by many who backed Leave in being left frustrated and angry. It is no wonder Theresa May is running scared of a referendum on the compromise-laden deal she will eventually negotiate.

Stuart Bonar blogs at and runs the Campaign to Remain page on Facebook

See pages 9-11 for the full story behind the deportation of Irene Clennell, removed from the UK after 27 years of marriage to her British husband

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