For years the Brexiteers have been in denial about the contradictions inherent to their project. Now they are coming out in the open.
This week I heard from a reliable source that the Indian government was seething at Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, and quietly retaliating by making it harder for British tourists and business travellers to get visas for India. Braverman had told the Spectator her main aim was to lower the number of migrants coming to Britain and put the blame squarely on India. She had “some reservations” even over more visa flexibility for Indian students and entrepreneurs.
“Look at migration in this country – the largest group of people who overstay are Indian migrants,” she said. “We even reached an agreement with the Indian government last year to encourage and facilitate better co-operation in this regard. It has not necessarily worked very well.”
The Times confirmed the Indian government’s fury, reporting that the India-UK trade deal that had been in the works for over a year was “in peril”. Indian officials, it said, were “shocked and disappointed” by Braverman’s comments. Bloomberg News reported that the trade deal, which Liz Truss had hoped to sign by Diwali (the end of October), would be delayed.
The row with India is a perfect illustration of the contradictions of the Brexit project. We were told Brexit would free Britain to pursue trade deals all over the world, without wondering what those countries would want in return. The United States wants Britain to lower its food and agricultural standards; India wants easier access for its students and entrepreneurs. Is Britain willing to offer that?
In one sense Braverman is right. Brexit wasn’t about free trade, it was a political movement that principally wanted to cut immigration. Boris Johnson papered over this contradiction by focusing on stopping asylum seekers – with the Rwanda deportation programme – while quietly expanding legal immigration. Braverman, and others, are pushing back not only because they don’t want higher immigration but because they worry about a backlash from their own voter base. In other words, Brexiteers seem to care more about immigration than trade deals. Braverman’s comments can be seen as a warning shot at Liz Truss.
This leads me to the second problem for the Prime Minister and her government: the Brexit project is fundamentally in conflict with higher economic growth. There were growing signs that trade disruption with the EU was hitting British exports and growth, and the same applies to other areas such as migration.
Allowing in more students and entrepreneurs from India, and elsewhere, would help to address the shortage of workers in Britain and increase investment. But the very idea of higher immigration frightens Brexiteers. Even liberal Tories have warned Truss in recent days that “we shouldn’t be using trade deals to dictate migration policy”.
Today the Sun reported that Braverman had been “cut out of immigration reform planning” after her interview. A source said: “It is clear that there is widespread frustration in government and in the party with Suella’s freelancing and her consistent blocking of the government agenda.” The Brexiteers won’t be silenced so easily, however. Whether or not Braverman prevails may end up defining how much power they still wield in government. Nevertheless, this isn’t just about Braverman doing a bit of “freelancing”. This is a key ideological divide that the Brexit project never really confronted.
The Brexit story was that Britain was being held back by regulations made by Brussels. Now the Tories have to confront the reality: that EU regulations weren’t the source of our problems but the enabler of frictionless trade with Europe. Moreover, the demands made by the Brexit project are fundamentally at odds with better trade, economic growth and higher incomes. The troubles with the India trade deal are merely the latest illustration of this dynamic.