Amber Rudd’s proposal to make companies publish lists of how many foreign workers they employ inflicted significant damage to one of Theresa May’s oldest aims: to shake off the Tories’ ‘nasty party’ image. And it also drew expressions of disgust from across the board, with Steve Hilton - David Cameron’s former aide - saying it amounted to ‘shaming’ of foreign workers. Grant Shapps said he would not vote for it. To the many Conservatives who spent years trying to reset the Tories' image, last week's conference was an awful setback. This was made worse because Rudd's proposal wasn't even in her speech, but in the footnotes. It suggests that May's No. 10 is unable to spot such dangers. If so, we can expect more of them.
The repair work was done over the weekend. Justine Greening, the Education Secretary, said there would be no naming and shaming of foreign workers. While defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon offered the same reassurances. He said that:
‘Let me absolutely confirm, that is not going to happen. We’re not going to ask companies to list or name or identity their foreign workers. The position is that companies already have to, when they engage someone from outside the EU, they already have to go through the labour market test and advertise the position in Britain for 28 days. What we’re looking at is to see whether that is just box ticking.’
For her part, Diane Abbott (with her tongue apparently firmly in her cheek) said the cabinet disagreement showed the Conservatives were in ‘disarray’. In fact, this messy incident - and the speed with which the Government has slapped it down - shows this half-baked idea is a blip rather than a major reversal. Yet while it’s clear that Theresa May’s Government won’t be making firms name and shame foreign workers, they’ve damaged their credibility in the meantime.
As Matt Ridley argues in today's Times, the irony is that Remainers are implementing an ugly version of Brexit. But why? Perhaps because of a belief (as Matthew Parris said in his Times column) that Remainers lost the argument so should now implement the victors' will. The risk is that they implement their own caricature of Brexit.
The Brexiteers were (and remain) very sensitive about what the Vote Leave platform described as an outward-looking, globally minded Brexit. Nonsense, said Remainers, the masses don't like immigrants and this is what it's all about. Not at all, said the Brexiteers, it's about sovereignty and control. That's why we should grant immediate and permanent residency rights to EU nationals. Naive nonsense, said the Leavers: in the provinces they want the skids put under Johnny Foreigner.
A heated debate is stemming from two very different visions of what Brexit would be. And the irony: The Brexiteers won, but Brexit is now being interpreted by Remainers (Theresa May, Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd). Brexiteers think Britain now needs to go to extra lengths to stress its global openness - with an amnesty for EU nationals. The Remainers think this is awful, but they won the argument so let's start to snarl at foreigners like they seem to want us to do in Nuneaton.
May's commendable decision to press ahead with a clean Brexit looked like it would unite her party. But this difference of opinion in what Brexit should mean may well divide it again.