‘Brexit means Brexit’, Theresa May has repeatedly reassured us. But it seems Brexit might not mean an introduction of a ‘points-based’ immigration policy which Vote Leave – and a number of cabinet ministers, including Boris Johnson – had called for during the referendum campaign. The Prime Minister said the system was no ‘silver bullet’ and planned to look ‘across the board’ for answers instead. As is becoming clearer – and as James Forsyth pointed out after May’s Marr interview yesterday – the Prime Minister has a style in front of journalists which involves giving little away. So offering up the small titbit that a points system might not feature in May’s plans for Brexit is something of a big reveal for the Prime Minister (and the reason why it manages to boot Keith Vaz off a number of papers this morning). But what does this tell us?
The first thing to say is that it’s not actually much of a surprise. In July, James Brokenshire (who worked closely with May at the Home Office) gave much the same answer to a select committee on the subject of what immigration policy was best. He said:
‘It is not necessarily that the points-based system is the right way to do it. There are other arrangements that could be considered as well.’
So it’s clear that those who worked in the Home Office under David Cameron share a reluctance about the merits of a points system. But if Vote Leave promised to bring in this new approach in the wake of Brexit are the PM’s hands tied? Theresa May wants to make it clear that isn’t the case – and has done so by refusing to stick to other promises (including guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens already in the UK), made by the ‘Leave’ campaign (this is, arguably, part of the problem with them disbanding so quickly).
The PM wants it known that her referendum reticence means she isn’t bound by promises made on her behalf. Yet her announcement at the G20 is something of a small olive branch to the EU. A points system is blind to geography and wouldn’t offer any preference for EU nationals wanting to work in Britain. This was one of the reasons why Vote Leave said they wanted it. But this same reason, with Theresa May already having one eye on the start of actual negotiations once Article 50 is triggered, may well be why she’s keen on making it clear to fellow European leaders that managed migration from the EU does feature in her plans. This is largely though about May wanting to keep her cards close to her chest; she knows that Brexit will involve compromise and negotiation and the PM is clearly wary of spelling out in specific detail any plans which might not feature in the final package. Having been forced to repeatedly defend the previous government’s ‘tens of thousands’ pledge on immigration, May is also likely to want to be particularly careful about saying anything which might come back to haunt her – particularly on a sensitive subject like this.
But despite refusing to back this Vote Leave pledge, Theresa May did try and make it clear she is all for one of their central pledges. The PM might not be keen on their immigration idea, but she does want us to know she likes their campaign slogan: Vote Leave, take control. The word ‘control’ popped up repeatedly during her answers at the G20 summit. She said that’s what British people voted for and that’s what she plans to deliver. For now, in the absence of any concrete announcements, we’ll just have to take her word for it.