Even before she turned full “Brexit means Brexit”, Theresa May was known as a draconian Home secretary when it came to immigration. The Prime Minister has so far shown herself willing to sacrifice access to the single market – and consequently Britain’s economic future – in order to stop the free movement of people.
But what’s this? May has now dropped a hint that freedom of movement for EU citizens could be extended past the end of the UK’s membership of the EU. According to the BBC, May said once the final deal was struck, there would be an “implementation” phase which would give businesses a “period of time” to adjust.
The Prime Minister is only the latest to acknowledge that there may be reasons for immigration beyond fuelling angry Daily Mail headlines. Here is when the penny dropped for some of her ministers…
David “Takes Years” Davis
On 27 December 2015, the then-backbencher MP David Davis declared he was “voting out” in the forthcoming EU referendum. Among his reasons was the “disastrous migration crisis”.
Fast forward 14 months. In February, the minister responsible for Brexit, Davis has been spotted in the Latvian capital of Riga, with a slightly different message.
He admitted it was not plausible that Brits would immediately take jobs in the kind of low-paid sectors like agriculture and social care currently staffed by migrant workers.
Immigration restrictions “will take years” to be phased in, he added.
Andrea “Seasonal Labour” Leadsom
During the EU referendum campaign, Brexit charmer-in-chief Andrea Leadsom told The Guardian that immigration from EU countries could “overwhelm” Britain, and that her constituents complained about not hearing English spoken on the street.
But speaking to farmers in 2017 as Environment secretary, Leadsom said she knew “how important seasonal labour from the EU is, to the everyday running of your businesses”. She said she was committed to making sure farmers “have the right people with the right skills”.
Sajid “Bob the Builder” Javid
The Communities secretary Sajid Javid backed the Remain campaign like his mentor George Osborne, but when he was offered a job in the Brexit government, he took it.
Javid has criticised immigrants who don’t integrate, but it seems there is one group he doesn’t have any qualms about – the construction workers who build the homes that fall under his remit.
As early as September, Javid was telling the FT he wouldn’t let any pesky UK border red tape get between him and foreign workers needed to meet his housebuilding targets.
Philip “Citizen of the World” Hammond
So if you can’t kick out builders, what about that perennially unpopular group of workers, bankers? Not so fast, says Philip Hammond.
Just three months after Brexit, he said the government would use immigration controls “in a sensible way that will facilitate the movement of highly-skilled people between financial institutions and businesses”.
As a Chancellor who personally backed Remain, Hammond is painfully aware of the repercussions if the City decamps to the Continent.
Greg “Brightest and Best” Clark
The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy secretary backed Remain, and has kept his head down since winning the meaty new industrial brief.
Nevertheless, he seems willing to weigh in on the immigration cap debate, at least on behalf of international students. Asked whether the post-study work visa pilot should continue, Clark said the government wanted to attract the brightest and best.
“We have visa arrangements in place so that people can work in graduate jobs after that, and it is important that they should be able to do so.”
Jeremy “The Doctor” Hunt
The Health secretary kept his job in the turmoil of the summer, and used his conference speech to toe the party line with a pledge that the NHS would rely on less foreign medical staff in future.
The problem is, Hunt has alienated junior doctors by imposing an unpopular contract, and even those wannabe medics that do sign up will have to undergo half a decade of studying first.
Asked about where he plans to find NHS workers in Parliament, Hunt declared: “No one from either side of the Brexit debate has ever said there will be no immigration post-Brexit.” He also remained “confident” that the UK would be able to negotiate a deal that allowed the 127,000 EU citizens working for the NHS to stay.
So it turns out we might need agriculture and construction workers, plus students, medics and even bankers after all. It’s a good thing the government already has a Brexit plan sorted out…