What the Immigration Proposal Leak Tells Us

Passport control at Heathrow. (C) Dannyman on Flickr under CC 2.0.

Whoever leaked the government’s outline plans for post-Brexit immigration arrangements yesterday has told us one thing – that the infighting at the top ranks of the Conservative Party is vicious and will be ongoing for the foreseeable.

The papers could only have been leaked on instructions from the very top of the government. Those at both ends of the government’s internal debate on Brexit might have motives for doing so, but more of that in a moment.

A flexible negotiating position, as David Davis would describe his stance, could be a sensible strategy if he was negotiating only with Michel Barnier. The problem is that he is negotiating with a number of other actors, and those with most power to shift his position are in London, not on the continent. To be precise, he is negotiating with the Prime Minister, with the Cabinet as a whole, and with parliament. To make it even more complex, in negotiating with parliament, he must deal not only with his own back benches but at the very least with the DUP, and if things get messy possibly with the small but crucial phalanx of staunchly leave Labour MPs. It’s enough turbulence to make Maverick from Top Gun bring up his breakfast.

The leaking and backbiting won’t stop. The perception is still that Theresa May is a caretaker Prime Minister, and of course a lot of her colleagues covet her job. As Matthew d’Ancona notes, the Conservatives seem completely consumed by the internal power balance and the succession, oblivious to the possibility that a political asteroid might banish them from power for a generation.

As for the policy papers themselves: what we’ve seen look like they come straight from the Prime Minister herself, possibly with Nick Timothy still advising by telephone.

Wherever they’ve come from, if they survive in this form, with the hardest possible treatment of EU citizens (the family reunion proposals are brutal) they make it very difficult for a sensible transition arrangement to be negotiated. Remember that the EU27 governments are going to need to sign off on any final deal: how will this play in Warsaw, Madrid or Vilnius?

So who leaked them? It could be anyone. For the soft Brexit/continuity Remain faction, this has brought British business, small and large, pronouncing them as doom for the British economy. For care homes, farms, and warehouses, these proposals would make recruitment very difficult. Those wishing a more generous post-Brexit mutual immigration arrangement with the EU would certainly have motive in having these proposals derailed before they become a fixed position. Leaking them to The Guardian ensured the first commentary heard on them was a negative one from business and migrant representative organisations.

But leaking might also suit the really hard Brexiteers. Underneath the press conference bluster, David Davis had a point when he said that Michel Barnier was exaggerating how badly the last round of negotiations had gone, especially at the level of officials, far from the media spotlight. One could certainly see a path towards a transition of some years and eventual EEA-lite status from the initial UK position papers. This will harden attitudes across the continent, especially in the East and South, making eventual compromise harder to attain; for those who want Brexit to mean a complete reorientation of the UK away from its contintental neighbours, that would be ideal. Leaking them to The Guardian would make an angry Prime Minister (if she is angry) focus her search for perpetrators elsewhere.

Finally, if you’ve read this far, do consider reading Faisal Islam’s long read piece on the Sky News website. Whatever your position on Brexit, it is the clearest and most comprehensive analysis of the current state of play I’ve seen.

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