Is Boris Johnson preparing to flip 180 degrees on immigration?

Whilst we are waiting for the impact, or otherwise, of Boris ‘the hype’ Johnson, Newton Emerson makes a sharp observation in the Irish News on what is actually going on in the undergrowth of British politics…

An inordinate amount of the mess the UK has got itself into over Brexit is due to prime minister Theresa May making immigration a red line. This set in chain a remorseless jigsaw of EU legal logic.

Without free movement it is impossible to remain in the single market, creating the bulk of the practical problems in managing the border.

Without single market membership, May could only agree to a backstop for Britain that covered the customs union. The Northern Ireland backstop covers both, creating the potential sea border that made her withdrawal agreement unsellable to the DUP and others in Westminster.

Yet May continued to seek every other benefit of the single market by promising continued regulatory alignment with the EU.

The result was pithily described by Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator, as: “Remain, without freedom of movement.”

This is why it is so intriguing that Boris Johnson, by far the favourite to succeed May, is rubbing out her red line.

The paradox has been that immigration only affects the lower economic end of the Brexit vote. The bulk of that vote is in the wealthy south which feels invulnerable enough to the downside of its lifestyle choices to rough out the next 10-15 years.

Frankly, immigrants don’t pose any kind of a threat to local livelihoods in the way they are perceived in the post industrial wastelands of Northern England or south Wales.  Newton notes:

Last week, he proposed an amnesty for the UK’s estimated half a million illegal immigrants, lamenting they cannot properly “take part in the economy” and “pay their taxes” and ridiculing the idea significant numbers could be deported.

He concludes:

The EU says it will reopen May’s withdrawal agreement if there is a “fundamental change” in the UK’s red lines – a position with the crucial endorsement of the Irish and French governments.

Immigration has to a large extent been the UK’s only red line and changing it would unlock everything.

Johnson strongly advocated continued single membership for years, right up to the referendum. If consistency is any guide to his honesty, that might be worth noting.

The backstop was a British idea. But the need for it could die along with May’s singular obsession with curbing immigration. The narrow view of the caretaker PM failed to allow for the fact that immigration is to do with a skills shortage in the native population.

That’s a shortfall in domestic policy that certainly was not imposed by the EU. If that’s the way Johnson plays it, it will of course constitute a 180 degree, roaring handbrake turn from his grandstanding on the matter during the Referendum.

With Mr Johnson the ever inconstant, getting into a Number 10, it appears, is all that matters.

Photo by Rod Long is licensed under CC0

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