The government’s silence on immigration tightens its blindfold on Brexit

The expectations unleashed by the rhetoric of ‘taking back control’ are a long way from the reality.

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As Brexit moves towards the critical Parliamentary votes, the debate is changing fundamentally, with some honesty finally breaking out. Those who spent the last two years endlessly repeating the mantra that “No deal is better than a bad deal” have hit the TV and radio studios to argue that Theresa May’s bad deal should be accepted because the alternative is “No deal” which, they now rightly say, would be a catastrophe.

Even more significantly, claims that the country will be more prosperous have been abandoned. The government’s own analysis has nailed that argument beyond challenge – except by the most extreme expert-denying Brexiteers. Even Jacob Rees Mogg has said that we won’t know for 50 years, while the Chancellor confirmed that the UK would be worse off under every option outside the EU.

Instead, both the Chancellor and Prime Minister are arguing for her deal on the basis that failing to deliver on the result of the 2016 referendum would have serious social and political consequences; something that should not be lightly dismissed. Almost every Government spokesperson amplifies this point by saying that May’s doomed deal deserves support because it takes back control of our borders.

Indeed, top of the Government’s “40 reasons to back the Brexit deal” is the promise that “Free movement will come to an end, once and for all, with the introduction of a new skills-based immigration system.” But the expectations unleashed by the rhetoric of ‘taking back control’ are a long way from the reality.

The Government have had complete ‘control of our borders’ in relation to non-EU migration for the last eight years and, in every one of those years, net migration from outside the EU has been higher than from within it. As the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show, falling immigration from the EU has been balanced out by rising numbers from beyond, with non-EU immigration hitting a 14 year high.

These numbers reflect the needs of both the economy and public services; and they are unlikely to change significantly. The NHS are responding to their European recruitment crisis by looking further afield, striking deals with Jamaica, India and possibly the Philippines. At the same time, Michael Gove is promising farmers that Ukrainian workers will replace the EU citizens  who are now less keen to pick our crops.

The Tories decision to focus relentlessly on immigration before and after the 2010 election, and repeating their promises to massively reduce numbers ever more loudly as they failed to deliver, helped to create the conditions for the Brexit vote. Now, more than ever, we need honesty on the issue.

The public will turn on politicians who deliver a damaging Brexit on a false prospectus, creating huge opportunities for the populist right. So it is unacceptable, as the Home Secretary has now suggested, that Parliament will be voting on the Withdrawal Deal without knowing the Government’s plans for post-Brexit migration. Without the long promised and much delayed White Paper on Immigration we are heading for a blindfold Brexit on a central issue behind our departure from the EU.

Paul Blomfield MP is a Shadow Brexit Minister and former Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration.