Does Theresa May really understand Brexit? Speaking to Robert Peston today, the Home Secretary seemed to be entertaining the idea of deporting European nationals staying in Britain. Or, almost as bad, using them as collateral in some negotiation with Brussels: a deeply worrying and, to me, revolting suggestion. But coming from the Home Secretary, we have no choice but to take it seriously.
Robert Peston: Now, there’s a lot of anxiety among migrants who’ve come here from the rest of the EU about whether they’ll be allowed to stay. There’s also quite a lot of anxiety among Brits living in the rest of Europe. What would you say to them?
May: What I’d say is that, at the moment we’re still a member of the EU, and the arrangements still continue, so there is no change to their position currently. But of course, as part of the negotiation, we will need to look at this question of people who are here in the UK from the EU, and I want to be able to ensure that we’re able to not just guarantee a position for those people, but guarantee the position for British citizens who are over in other member states, in other countries in Europe and living there.
Peston: So you would like people both… you’d like Brits abroad and migrants here to stay? Forever basically?
May: Well, nobody necessarily stays anywhere forever. But I think what’s important…
Peston: But at their choice?
May: What’s important is there will be a negotiation here as to how we deal with that issue of people who are already here and who have established a life here and Brits who’ve established a life in other countries within the European Union. And that is, their position at the moment is as it has been. There’s no change at the moment, but of course we have to factor that into the negotiations.
Factor it into negotiations? Does she mean to tell the French, German and Polish workers who have so enriched British life - including the tens of thousands working for the NHS - that she'll make them into a bargaining chip? We'll only let the Polish nurses stay if the Spanish keep our pensioners?
Michael Gove and the rest of the Vote Leave leadership made this clear during the campaign: no deportations. Not even a question of deportations. Brexit was a vote to control immigration, to control the inflow: currently more than three times higher than Mrs May's 100,000 target. But it was not a vote to boot out anybody, and to allow even the slightest doubt about that point is grossly irresponsible. Especially at a time when so many are trying to cast the Brexit vote in the worst possible light.
Britain needs these people; our NHS needs these people. We don't keep them as a favour to Poland and nor should we ever dream of bargaining their residency in some game of diplomatic hardball. The EU may threaten deportation of Brits: it's a corrupt and undemocratic institution which is why the 52pc of us voted to leave. But no British government should ever consider kicking out any of the two million EU nationals who are already with us..
You can see why there is confusion. When the Remain campaign was getting desperate, it sought to present Brexit as a cry of rage from people who were a bit confused, malign or northern (or all three). People who were probably a bit racist, and wouldn’t mind kicking out Johnny Foreigner. Appallingly, David Cameron says only that EU nationals will gave “no immediate changes” - a hint that they may face "changes" later. Everyone in Vote Leave said that they would not. Even now, he seems determined to paint the Brexit as the triumph of intolerance.
The great concern about Theresa May saying "Brexit is Brexit" is that her understanding of it doesn't go much beyond that soundbite. That she didn't believe in Brexit, that she still doesn't, and is simply not the right person to oversee this historic decision taken just over a week ago.
The negotiations will be complex but the status of EU nationals in Britain is not a small thing: it's a huge thing. And it's slap bang in the middle of the Home Secretary's area of expertise. Her deplorable ambiguity today will make a lot of European neighbours feel that bit more anxious about their future. And it will make pro-Brexit Tory MPs feel anxious about Theresa May's ability to understand what it was all about.