James Kirkup

Theresa May will campaign as being tough on Brexit, but soft on society

Theresa May will campaign as being tough on Brexit, but soft on society
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A Brexit election, then. Theresa May will win and claim that victory is all the mandate she needs for whatever comes from the negotiations in Brussels.  The working assumption must be that includes leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union, and, of course, an end to free movement when we leave.

And we are leaving.  This election should kill stone dead any Remainer dream that Brexit can be stopped.  When she takes Britain out of the EU, Mrs May will have both a referendum and a general election win on her side; what will Brexit’s opponents have? 

The Lib Dems will very likely do well in the election, possibly emerging as the party of the unreconciled metropolitan Remainer vote. While Jeremy Corbyn will, surely, be gone by June’s end, Tim Farron will be invigorated, leader of a much bigger and more significant Lib Dem party – unless, of course, a certain Nick Clegg makes a comeback as leader.  After all, the big and important role that the Lib Dems may well play in the next Parliament needs a big and important leader, and frankly, Mr Clegg fits that bill much better than Mr Farron.

But that’s for another day. The immediate point is that Mrs May has made a decision that will make Brexit inevitable. It’s going to happen.  Full stop. 

I do not say this with any joy. I voted Remain and continue to worry about the consequences of leaving. But I think the case for stopping Brexit is untenable, so the sensible thing to do is find ways to make sure what comes next is as good as it can be, given the circumstances.

One of the things I worry about is immigration and Britain’s admirably open labour market and tolerant society. A big question: what sort of mandate does Mrs May want on immigration?  She could run on the 'tens of thousands' promise again, taking  a hard line on immigration that would raise voters expectations that Brexit will mean a big, steep drop in net immigration. Yet all the noise in Whitehall in recent weeks has been of accepting the continuing need for EU migration in many sectors of the economy. 

A wiser course for the PM would be to campaign on the promise to 'control' immigration, but put less emphasis on numbers – and to level with voters about the economic merits of EU migration. She is, arguably, the perfect person to make that case: her understanding of and sympathy for voters’ concerns on immigration are strong – she has a lot of capital on the issue.  She also faces no real threat on the issue either from Labour or a disorganised Ukip.  So she can afford to talk about the positive side of (controlled) EU immigration in this election campaign. 

Doing so would make her life easier in the Brexit negotiations, not least since it would solidify support for the UK among eastern members.  A modestly immigration-positive tone mandate in the election would also make it easier to bring back from Brussels a Brexit deal that includes scope for significant EU migration after our exit. Simply, senior Conservatives privately believe that migration must continue, but they need to get voters to accept that. This election offers them that chance.

Something else that may, just, emerge from the election is a clearer understanding of Mrs May’s rather moderate, even centrist domestic agenda. While Brexit dominates debate about the May Government and will define her place in history, she has another agenda, concerned with making the economy and public services work better for 'ordinary' people.

I suspect that we’ll see more of that during the election campaign. Indeed, the Conservatives may even borrow some of Mr Corbyn’s message and policies on the low-paid.  That would see Mrs May return to Downing Street claiming to have a mandate to be hard on Brexit and soft on society.

Written byJames Kirkup

James Kirkup is the Director of the Social Market Foundation and a former political editor of The Scotsman and The Daily Telegraph

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