James Forsyth

Theresa May interview: ‘no guarantee immigration will be significantly lower after Brexit’

Theresa May interview: 'no guarantee immigration will be significantly lower after Brexit'
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Theresa May’s interview with Andrew Neil revealed several significant things about the government’s approach to Brexit. Tellingly, May wouldn’t rule out free movement and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice continuing during any Brexit ‘implementation period’. This eases the way for a transitional deal, as the EU is likely to insist on both of these things applying—at least, in some form—during any transition period. Though, it does raise the prospect of the government having to go into the next general election with free movement ongoing

There was another olive branch to EU capitals in May’s refusal to rule out preferential treatment for  EU migrants post-Brexit. The EU is very keen to ensure that any UK/EU free trade agreement gives EU nationals preferential access to the UK labour market. But several members of May’s Cabinet, most notably Boris Johnson, have been clear that they want equal treatment for EU and non-EU citizens post-Brexit. 

But there was better news for Boris Johnson in May ruling out continuing paying ‘significant sums’ to the EU for market access post-Brexit. Boris, as the cabinet minister most associated with Vote Leave’s £350 million a week pledge, was deeply unhappy when David Davis floated the idea of paying for market access a few months back. 

However, May tried to side-step questions about the EU’s demand for a divorce payment. She hid behind the fact that no one has formally presented her with a request for money yet, so she can’t say whether she would accept it or not. Again, this is about May keeping her options in the negotiations as open as possible.

But, I suspect, the exchange which will grab the headlines tomorrow was May’s refusal to say that immigration would be ‘significantly lower’ post-Brexit.

Following on from the Brexit secretary David Davis’ comments about how immigration will go up and down from year to year, it indicates that the government is trying to manage expectations on this subject—to make clear that Brexit will not lead to a dramatic fall in immigration. This is a sensible position: the economy isn’t ready for immigration to be reduced to the tens of thousands. But it will, inevitably, be attacked by Nigel Farage and his crew. May’s political standing, though, is strong enough at the moment that she needn’t be overly worried about this.