One of the first political crises to flow from last month’s referendum is one that nobody saw coming. Theresa May, the Home Secretary-cum-Prime Minister in waiting has refused to guarantee EU nationals currently living in Britain the right to remain.
There were many bitter disputes during the Referendum campaign; trade with Europe, strain on public services, the open door to new EU migrants. But neither the Leave campaign nor their populist counterparts in UKIP, ever advocated the repatriation of people who had come to the UK in pre-referendum good faith. Repatriation would be, to quote leading Eurosceptic Jacob Rees-Mogg, immoral.
This is why, yesterday in the Commons, a Labour motion to guarantee EU nationals the unequivocal right to remain was passed by 245-2, winning support from all major parties in Parliament. Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham, who proposed the motion, quickly tweeted victory. However, the Government chose to abstain on this motion which limits its forcefulness, and even if the Government had endorsed the motion, it is not binding on policy. They can therefore press ahead with their current approach of delaying all major policy decisions until a new Prime Minister is in place.
Considering the abject lack of demand for deportations both within and without Westminster, May’s actions might seem puzzling. She told reporters that she would seek a ‘’fair deal’’, but that the result would be subject to Brexit negotiations once Article 50 is triggered. May is clearly and acutely aware that the UK does not have many points of leverage over the EU. Even though it’s highly unlikely that any Prime Minister would consider repatriation, keeping her cards close to her chest is at this stage advantageous for negotiations. Ms May’s intentions may also be purely practical; she has said that offering a guarantee would only lead to a very rapid influx of new migrants looking to beat an Article 50 deadline; after all, one of the few blots on May’s copybook at the Home Office is her failure to get immigration into the tens of thousands, as the Government promised in 2015.
Alternatively, this could be an attempt to reach out to the Tory right and prove she’d make a tough negotiator following her open, albeit strategically subdued, support for Remain.
Tory MPs will now whittle the three prospective candidates down to two. Once it’s clear whether Andrea Leadsom or Michael Gove will challenge May in the members’ ballot, there will be more substantive policy proposals put forward in an attempts to win votes. Whether the 52% who backed Brexit come to support repatriation will likely determine how far forward May takes this position into Article 50 negotiations.