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6 September 2017

How leaked immigration plans expose the government’s Brexit mess

These tough policies simply aren't compatible with assurances about a transition deal.

By Stephen Bush

The Guardian has got hold of an 82-page Home Office paper outlining Britain’s proposed post-Brexit immigration policy, dated last month.

Among the proposals: people from the European Union will have to clear an income threshold in order to move to Britain, and in order to secure indefinite leave to remain will have to provide fingerprints and other information. Most visas will be capped to a two-year stay. The full document, which can be read here, is just a proposal, but strikingly one that would be incompatible with anything other than a hard and immediate exit from the single market and customs union in March 2019.

The contents are pretty much exactly in step with immigration policy under Theresa May, with the plans in much the same spirit as the post-2013 “hostile environment” approach: designed to encourage people already living here to leave and to deter others from arriving. The leaked paper is full of the sort of language that makes the Home Office so unpopular on Whitehall, and particularly in the Treasury. (One particular highlight calls on immigrants after Brexit to make a positive contribution to the lives of British people – something every study shows they already do.)

Over at the Times, Sam Coates has been digging into the leak and has unearthed details of the cabinet battle around the proposal. In the blue corner: Amber Rudd, who has been working to modify and soften the policy, as well as the Brexiteers Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, who are more liberal on immigration than the PM. In the purple corner: the PM, who is determined to enforce a tougher policy after Brexit. The row is part of why the PM’s next big speech on Brexit has been pushed back to 21 September.

In many ways the leak confirms what we suspect and conforms to what we already know: that the PM has religion as far as a tough border policy goes, and that her hope at least is that after Brexit, Britain turns the same unwelcoming face to Europe as it does to the rest of the world.

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But the interesting new development is in the date of the proposal: just last month. These policies simply aren’t compatible with the government or the PM’s assurances to business and to the public about a transition deal. One of the questions about the United Kingdom’s Brexit strategy is if it really is as rushed and incoherent as it looks. On this evidence, the government’s approach really is as messy and contradictory a first impression would suggest.