Theresa May has gone out of her way to repeatedly reassure people that Brexit means Brexit. But where the Prime Minister has been less eager to offer words of comfort is on the status of EU nationals living and working in Britain. That stony silence has been one of the big themes of the Conservative party’s conference this year. May’s refusal to commit has left a question mark dangling over millions of people. At a Spectator fringe event last night, David Davis went as far as any member of Government (or, indeed, any loyal cabinet minister) to reassuring those from the EU that they wouldn’t be removed from Britain.
When challenged by an Italian national, who had been living in Britain for ten years (and working here for five), he was asked why Theresa May seemed so cavalier about his status to stay in Britain. Here’s what Davis said in response:
“‘We have no intention of deporting people or treating people who, through no fault of their own, are here during the middle of a transition to their own country, but what we have to do is also keep in mind the rights of British citizens abroad and so we’ll fix the whole thing together and I’m absolutely 100 per cent sure we’ll be able to do that and there will be no difficulty for anybody.’
Davis’s comments - as well as bypassing a Downing Street which keeps up its reticence on the subject - also show up negotiations over the future of Britain’s three million EU nationals for what they are: a charade.
Liam Fox was heavily condemned yesterday for saying EU workers in Britain were one of the ‘main cards’ in the country’s Brexit negotiations. But it’s worth remembering that he is simply restating May’s position that the fate of our immigrants is now an open question. Every party, from Labour to UKIP, have said that putting the skids under so many public sector workers, including teachers and doctors, is inexcusable but still the Government has stuck fast. Many Brexiteers have also piled on pressure for reassurances to be made to EU nationals. Perhaps, then, this explains why Davis - a prominent ‘Leaver’, unlike May, during the referendum - was eventually eager to go beyond his boss's trenchant silence on the subject.
Davis’s response was also interesting for another reason. While the Government has suggested the status of EU nationals is something to be worked out during Brexit negotiations, the Brexit secretary made it clear that much of their security to stay in Britain already exists in law. He said:
“'It’s a legal right, if you’ve been here five years you have indefinite leave to remain anyway, and if you’ve been here six years you can be a citizen if you want to. In fact, if anybody in the audience has been here two and a half years by the time we leave they’ll have been here five years and so there’s no risk to them.’
Davis made it clear that, for a significant chunk of the EU nationals already here, their status is all but guaranteed. But for a Government that apparently wants to reassure this group of understandably worried people, it seems odd that Davis is on his own in being the one to spell this out.