During the Brexit debate, there was a wide mainstream consensus that EU nationals living in Britain should not be affected. As even Ukip said, it would be unthinkable that someone here legally could later be declared illegal. Labour, the CBI, SNP, Vote Leave, pretty much everyone ruled out the disgusting idea of repatriating a single one of the three million EU nationals living in Britain. Or even putting them under the threat of repatriation. As Sajid Javid put it, they’re here because we need them – to work for the NHS, our other shops and businesses, to make our society stronger. During the referendum campaign this was not an issue because every single mainstream political party stood inside this consensus.
But this consensus was shattered when Theresa May declared to Robert Peston that she would put the skids under the EU nationals and use them as collateral in her coming negotiations. At the time, I thought it was a technocratic mistake – and, to be honest, I still do. Can the Theresa May who campaigned so hard for ending Modern Slavery, to stop police trying to punish the victims of trafficking, really be the same Theresa May who has just told every EU national in Britain that she may regard them as an illegal alien and deport them? Such an awful idea looked like it came from a civil servant who had forgotten that we’re not bargaining with fishing subsidies but people’s lives and futures. And that Britain has to work extra hard, now, to persuade the world that Brexit was not a nativist yawp.
If Twitter is anything to go by, Theresa May’s stance is certainly popular with nativists who think they have, in her, someone behaving “logically” by saying she’ll make no promise for a single Pole until Spain guarantees the security of Brits on the Costa del Sol. Logical, but heartless. It’ll take the EU a very long time to strike a deal with Britain – and until then, she’s quite happy to destabilise our Europeans. In my view, she’s appealing to the wrong constituency.
How strange that, of all people, it is Theresa May who has – to the disgust of many people in her Cabinet – personally placed the UK government to the right of Ukip and created an environment where the children of EU migrants are asking at school if they’ll be sent home. And the answer, appallingly, is: we don’t know. The Prime Minister says this is an open question, and one she has not decided.
We ran a leader on this in The Spectator last week. This week, we print others who make the same point: Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, Martha Lane Fox and Angus Robertson asking the Prime Minister to end the uncertainty in a sentence and say, as every other mainstream party has been able to say, that anyone here legally will be allowed to stay legally. We’ll reprint them on Coffee House later.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.