The biggest puzzle of Theresa May’s premiership so far is why someone who pioneered laws against modern slavery and was so tough on stop-and-search should take such an extreme and heartless position on EU migrants. Her declaration – that she’d use them as bargaining chips in Brexit talks – struck many who would otherwise support her as bizarre and repugnant. The Times reveals today that this idea was dummed up, as you’d expect, by the Whitehall machine.
Sir Ivan Rogers, Britain’s ambassador to the EU, advised all candidates for the Tory leadership to use Britain’s three million EU nationals as bargaining chips in Brexit talks because he thought it would be the only bargaining chip Britain had. Boris Johnson, Andrea Leadsom, Michael Gove and Sajid Javid all regarded the idea as disgusting, and said so. Even if destabilising Polish nurses and German mechanics in Britain would give the Foreign Office a nice chip to play, why would a humane government wish to do so?
Mrs May’s mistake – her worst so far - was to not think his advice through properly. Such a threat might sense to a bloodless bureaucrat, marinated in the thinking of Whitehall and Brussels. But think about the human factor: the uncertainty this policy would create, not just for the millions of people here but for their children. Think about what message it would send out about the direction that Britain had just taken. Sir Ivan’s idea now risks retoxifying the Tories as “the nasty party.”
Sir Ivan’s proposal is also far outside the mainstream of UK politics - only the BNP agreed that the EU nationals should no be given immediate reassurance. This ought to have served as an alarm bell to him, and to Mrs May. The issue was debated in parliament in January, with a strong consensus - from the Labour left to the Tory right - that the Brexit debate was in no way a question about going after people who are here already. Every political party, from the Liberal Democrats to Ukip, was clear that Britain should say, from the very start of the Brexit debate, that this was not about deportations. If you’re here legally, you will not be subsequently declared illegal. Mrs May, who kept silent during the debate, stunned everyone by saying she stood outside this broad consensus.
And yes, the Foreign Office bureaucrats may complain about losing a bargaining chip – but the task of the Prime Minister is to explain to them that we’re not talking about bargaining with fishing subsidies, but people’s lives.
Worst of all, Sir Ivan’s cold-hearted gesture is also pointless. It’s illegal, under international law, to expel people en masse. This sort of mass deportation is the behaviour of Idi Amin-style dictators but not democracies. For the PM to say that she's even considering it is just awful. By contrast, making a unilateral declaration that Britain would protect the EU nationals would have sent out a much-needed reassuring message, and would have been a generous gesture that would have served as the perfect precursor to talks.
The concern about her policy is growing, and raising needless questions about the character of her style of Conservatism. A few weeks ago, The Spectator letters page had everyone from Catholic cardinals to dot-com entrepreneurs writing in asking Theresa May to change her mind and give the EU nationals the assurance they need. There is still plenty of time for her to do so.