“In her own mind, the prime minister has never really stopped being home secretary,” is how one cabinet minister describes Theresa May’s approach to policy at her former Home Office domain.
Perhaps it was inevitable after six years in which May defied the rules of political gravity, which often sent the careers of previous home secretaries crashing to earth. Her successful stint made her a hard act to follow, especially as she could look over her successor’s shoulder from Downing Street. Although Amber Rudd was a close ally, there were tensions between them.
When Rudd resigned over the Windrush scandal, the heat of that battle forced May to promote Sajid Javid – even though he had stood up to her in several cabinet clashes and she had planned to sack him if she had won an overall majority at last year’s general election.
May and Javid have been slugging it out for months over the white paper published today on the post-Brexit immigration regime, which was originally due last year but ran so late that Chris Grayling would be proud of it. Remarkably, May and Javid arm-wrestled during the Tory conference in October for top spot in the headlines about the white paper.
In the run-up to today’s publication, No 10 angered Javid by trailing a reduction of up to 80 per cent in EU migration to try to win more favourable headlines.
The prime minister wants to portray the biggest shakeup of UK immigration rules for 40 years as yet another “crackdown”. With her Brexit deal in so much trouble, she inevitably views the white paper as a way of reminding MPs and the public that her agreement would end free movement for EU citizens. (Never mind that global Britain is supposed to be open for business).
However, Javid, rightly proud of his roots as a second generation immigrant and son of a bus driver who came to Britain with £1, is instinctively pro-immigration and so wants to switch from May’s crude numbers-based approach to one based on skills.
The result is that the white paper is a messy compromise. Javid stood his ground and refused to include May’s arbitrary target to reduce annual net migration, currently running at 273,000, to below 100,000, as our political editor Joe Watts revealed on Monday. Interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, Javid declined to repeat May’s “tens of thousands” mantra, even though it was in last year’s Tory manifesto. He insisted there was “no specific target”, saying only that migration would be cut to “sustainable levels”.
This is a significant change, and a victory for The Independent’s Drop the Target campaign. It is also a sign of May’s weakness, despite surviving last week’s vote of confidence among Tory MPs. Her target has been on life support for many months, with little backing in the cabinet. At Prime Minister’s Questions this lunchtime, May stuck stubbornly to the target. But she is isolated and Javid has administered the last rites.
He also scrapped May’s cap on highly skilled workers, a welcome move. For migrants on middle incomes, May displayed a tin ear towards business by insisting on a minimum £30,000 salary threshold before they can get a visa. But opposition from Philip Hammond and Greg Clark, who wanted a lower figure of around £21,000, means there will be a consultation exercise before a final decision is made. Another can kicked down the road; this could take another 12 months. So when the new immigration bill is published tomorrow, it will have a hole at its heart.
There is bad news for low-skilled workers, who can apply for visas lasting up to a year but will then have to return home for a cooling-off period of 12 months before reapplying. This will make it very difficult for those with families and is bound to cause problems in some sectors.
Officially, the white paper allows May to trumpet a “level playing field” between migration from the EU and the rest of the world. But that might not last. If the UK wants to preserve jobs, investment and close links with its biggest market in the long-term UK-EU trade deal, it will probably have to grant EU workers privileged access. And the the EU27 will have the upper hand in the negotiations.
May is sticking to her old Home Office tunes today by visiting Heathrow airport to publicise the white paper. Another day, another crackdown. But she will no longer be at the helm for the trade deal talks. Hopefully, her successor will consign her outdated rhetoric to the same dustbin as her discredited migration target.
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