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Can Ruth Davidson snap Theresa May out of her Brexit delusion?

30 May 2018

8:03 AM

30 May 2018

8:03 AM

Ruth Davidson’s Glasgow speech is making headlines about the NHS because that’s where most political village attention is right now. We all know that a big government announcement on health funding is coming and Davidson knows it too. As a former hack, she also knows how to hijack someone else’s story, so her speech is deftly done. (In the trade, this would be known as byline banditry, and it’s Jeremy Hunt’s byline she’s attempting to bandit, or at least share.)

But I’m more interested in what she said about immigration. Yes, she repeated a previous call to scrap the stupid “tens of thousands” target because it’s, well, stupid. That’s not news because she’s said it before and the target has been stupid before. But what is noteworthy is what Davidson said about public opinion:

“If we are to grow our economy – if we are to collaborate more and innovate more – we will do far better by seeking out people with the correct skills, and asking them to make Scotland and Britain their home.

And I believe, passionately, that the majority of Britons respond to this.

It’s been notable that, since the Brexit vote, polls have shown that concerns over immigration are actually reducing. It is not a side-effect I had foreseen from the vote, but, if sustained, I believe it is a positive one.

Brexit requires the country to make decisions at a UK level on aspects of immigration previously held by Brussels. As we have to shape those arrangements, I hope we can create a mature system, which leads to a more settled country.”

She’s right. Public opinion has started to shift since the referendum, though no one quite knows why or whether the trend will continue. What’s interesting is that Davidson is, I think, the most prominent Remain-voting politician to note and celebrate this shift.

While Michael Gove has also talked about this, the scorn that met his assessment that Britain was turning away from “identitarian” politics illustrated a curious feature of recent immigration debate. Some Remainers aren’t keen to admit that the electorate is not implacably opposed to immigration. Indeed, looking at the reactions to polls showing immigration is less unpopular and less important to many voters, I sometimes wonder if some of my fellow Remain voters don’t rather enjoy holding the idea that the Leave vote was proof that most Brits are provincial racists.

Or to quote Rob Ford of Manchester University:

“The conventional wisdom in many liberal circles holds that Britain has turned in on itself, encouraged by a Leave victory that has legitimated chauvinism and xenophobia.”

So the question is, how will liberal Remainers who scoffed when Gove said Britain is softening on immigration take it now Ruth Davidson, everyone’s favourite liberal Tory, says the same? And possibly more interestingly, what would happen if the Brexit sceptics embrace and even attempt to reinforce the signs that attitudes are shifting?

Remember this: Theresa May took the seismic decision to put Britain outside the EU Single Market because she concluded that voters’ primary demand for Brexit was an end to Free Movement. And remember too that Jeremy Corbyn has essentially accepted that assessment, even arguing that employees use EU workers to undercut low-skilled Britons’ wages, a line he presumably believes appeals to what he imagines voters want to hear.

In short, our party leaders (who both, apparently, voted Remain) have a depressingly low opinion of public attitudes on immigration – and have taken no apparent account of evidence that those opinions are changeable and changing.

But what if voters are actually more relaxed about immigration than the PM and Corbyn calculate? If more Remainers follow Ruth Davidson’s example and embrace the fact that voters are rather more open-minded than the main party leaders think they are, both Brexit and our wider politics could get very interesting indeed.

Is Ruth Davidson paving her way to Westminster? James Forsyth, Katy Balls and Cindy Yu discuss on the latest Coffee House Shots podcast.

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