We’re in uncharted territory now. Britain voted to leave the EU almost two weeks ago, and British politics is still in a crisis of unprecedented scale. Neither the Prime Minister nor the Chancellor are long for this world, and as such the Brexit negotiations cannot start until at least the 9th of September, when a new Tory leader will take control. Part of the chaos stems from the ambiguity of the electorate’s instructions. 17,000,000 people voted to Leave, and amongst them will be those who are strongly anti-immigration and those who cared a lot more about parliamentary sovereignty. It is highly possible that if both options (EEA or WTO) had been put to people alongside Remain, the Brexit vote would have split and we would still be in the EU. But, as people have taken to saying a lot now, we are where we are.
Although it was inevitable in the circumstances, the Conservative leadership contest that will rumble on for the next two months is not helping things in the slightest. Candidates are applying to hold the highest office in the country, but their only test is wooing a selectorate of 150,000 people who are considerably more right wing than your average punter. This has already led to an arms race on immigration, with Boris being the first casualty of war by hinting at a deal involving free movement of people. He didn’t just lose popularity or momentum for this cardinal sin, he lost his place in the contest altogether. The race is now between 5 MPs who are all to Boris’ right, which should concern us all.
The government will most likely have three central demands in Brexit negotiations; continued single market access, continued ‘passporting’ and an end to freedom of movement. Although Article 50 will need to be triggered for these conversations to begin, there are already clear signs being sent by EU leaders that we will not get all three. The probable outcome is that we will be able to get two of our choices, and will have to prioritise accordingly. The single market allows us to trade tariff free with the 27 other countries of the EU, and as such is invaluable to our economy. Passporting is a major factor in the success of our financial sector and without it many banks may move to other cities like Paris or Frankfurt, decimating our tax base. (You might be able to tell where I’m going with this).
Freedom of movement has been unfairly maligned for the best part of two decades now. The fact is that because of our aging population, we need more young working age people in the country than are being born here. They overwhelmingly come to Britain in search of work and give more to the state in tax revenue than they take out in benefits. More people in the country also means more services needed to cater for them, which is a net positive. Imagine, for example, that a cosy hamlet suddenly doubled in population. The local cornershop, which was previously sufficient, will start getting a lot more custom. To deal with this, either more staff will need to be employed or another shop will need to be set up to deal with the demand. Hence, more jobs are created. This is a microcosmic example, but it multiplies out into the macro level.
Ending freedom of movement may also have dire consequences for Northern Ireland. While obviously the Peace Process and the Good Friday agreement were massively helpful, just a few years ago there was violence on the streets after Belfast City Hall decided to fly the Union Jack from its building. In a fragile political climate, arbitrary reminders that the land is UK owned could stoke division and offend the nation’s Catholics. Imagine how much tension it would cause if every time Catholics wanted to visit the Free State they had to go through border checks. This could be required as it would no longer just be the border between the UK and Ireland, it would also be the border between the UK and the EU.
It is often assumed that freedom of movement is unpopular, and wanting controls on EU migration is a majority view. But is this really the case? Recent polling by Ipsos-Mori shows that around two thirds of Leave voters support leaving the single market in the pursuit of lower immigration. That leaves one third of Leave voters (18%) who disagree, and adding the 48% of Remain voters to that figure gets you a clear majority that supports, or at least is apathetic to, the status quo on immigration.
Labour have been utterly crippled by this unexpected result, and behind all the sound and fury of Tuesday’s no confidence vote neither side of the party actually knows how to deal with what happens next. The Blairites in the party have always been very much for freedom of movement, contrasting them with the Brownites and Blue Labourites. Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn declared himself in favour of free movement during the referendum campaign in what some described as an unhelpful intervention at the time. However, on Friday Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell said that “if Britain leaves the European Union, the free movement of people, of labour, will then come to an end”. He later clarified that he was just “stating the formal reality as it stands”, but this implies that he will not actively oppose any changes to immigration.
Ultimately, there is little sign that the Labour Party will become disciplined enough in the near future to have a unanimous line on the issue. The question is, will the Conservatives? Although they do not often mention it, around half of Conservative MPs are fine with freedom of movement. We know this because they spent the past four months supporting Britain’s continued membership of the EU with everything that entails. Most of them are backing Theresa May, and if she became Prime Minister she could be pressured by those MPs in the same way that the Tory Right pressured David Cameron. However, the membership will in turn be pressuring those MPs to take a firm line, not to mention Theresa herself. And that’s the optimistic scenario, as the general pattern of Tory leadership contests and the trajectory of Britain’s decline both suggest that Andrea Leadsom is the one to watch. How this scenario plays out in the House of Commons is not yet clear, but it could be that freedom of movement is the headless chicken of British politics; still running around for now, but essentially dead already.
The current situation can be described as a political disaster that is having some adverse effects on the economy. If a favourable deal is not reached with the EU in however many years’ time it could well turn into a full on economic disaster, another recession. To that end, one of the most important variables of the next general election will be impossible to know until the polls have closed… turnout. In recent history it has become commonplace to see general election turnout in the low-to-mid 60s, percentage wise. The EU referendum had 72% turnout, and those extra people who don’t normally vote at general elections voted Leave and swung the result. We have no idea whatsoever if this is a flash in the pan or the start of a trend. If turnout does indeed slump back to its previous levels it is very possible that the voting population will contain a Remain-supporting majority. In that case, immigration will fail to be the driving issue and focus will return to economic stability, an issue that was decidedly not decisive in the EU referendum. The Conservatives will have ruined the economy in the name of what UKIP’s only MP Douglas Carswell has described as ‘angry nativism’. Although difficult, it would still be possible to call in one last favour and renegotiate a different deal with the EU involving freedom of movement. The option will be on the table for any sensible party that wants to propose it, and that party could, just could, be Labour. Stranger things have happened in the past week or so.
Ben Devlin is a 19 year old writer from Bromley. He’s about to start studying Popular Music at Middlesex University, but he mostly writes about UK-based politics.