Is the Brexit campaign ‘morphing into Ukip’? That’s what Sir John Major will say he fears is happening later. In a speech at Oxford University, he’ll argue that those calling for Britain to leave the EU are ‘fuelling prejudice on immigration’. He’ll also say that:
‘As the leave arguments implode one by one, some of the Brexit leaders morph into Ukip and turn to their default position – immigration. I urge them to take care, this is dangerous territory that – if handled carelessly can open up long-term divisions in our society’.
So does he have a point? It’s definitely credible to see how some elements of the leave camp are focusing their positions around the immigration debate. But what won’t help Major’s argument is the suggestion that they are doing it only because of the failure of their other arguments. Accusing Eurosceptics of seeing their arguments ‘implode one by one’ ignores the truth, too, that some of the positions put forward by the remain side hardly stand up to scrutiny: take David Cameron’s World War three warning earlier this week, for instance.
Another difficulty with his argument is the description of immigration as ‘dangerous territory’. Clearly this is a topic which does affect peoples’ lives in a very real way, but what seems dangerous is to try and make the subject off-limits by painting it as out-of-bounds. Today’s front pages show just how important migration is to British voters and, by default, it’ll be on June 23rd. Take the Mail: ‘The 800,000 migrant toll they tried to cover up’; or The Sun’s: ‘Great migrant swindle’. Both follow on from the publication of yesterday’s ONS figures showing the number of migrants using National Insurance numbers to work in Britain. We now know that last year 626,000 EU migrant workers registered for NI numbers, compared to net migration figures estimated at only 323,000. Whatever your views on those figures, it’s impossible to deny that it’s a worthy topic to debate. By trying to colour it as a back-up option for leave, Major doesn’t do credit to peoples’ worries about migration and that’s neither helpful nor likely to curry favour in persuading Eurosceptics.
What’s more, there’s the undeniable suggestion, too, that Major is trying to paint Ukip as something to be avoided in line with the Prime Minister’s own depiction of the party as ‘fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists’. And we all know where that got him.
Major isn’t wrong to call for sensitivity about the topic of immigration and it’s helpful to try and ensure the subject is handled properly. But the idea that he might be trying to shut down discussion on the subject and his attempts to paint the remain side as having a kind of moral high ground in the arguments they are putting forward looks foolish.