The popular image of Theresa May as a safe pair of hands with a steely resolve is a major factor in her widespread popularity. The public perceive her as the best person to hold the reins steady as we go through the difficult process of leaving the European Union. She was certainly the best option of the Conservative leadership contenders; it would have been a sorry state of affairs if we were to go into negotiations armed only with Boris’s bluster or Andrea Leadsom’s ignorance. As for Jeremy Corbyn, he doesn’t have the brains or the heart or the stomach to represent Britain on the world stage.
So, I readily concede that Mrs May was the pick of a rather dubious talent pool within her party and is far better than having a repugnant far-left throwback in charge. The public very clearly agree and is about to endorse her leadership with a stonking majority. However, as the ever adaptable Conservative party reforms in her image and Tory paternalism becomes the leading philosophy, I can’t help but feel that although she may be the best person to lead us out of the EU, she is not the leader who will ultimately make a success of Brexit.
Her interventionist economic instincts and anti-immigration drive will simply compound the negative vision of Brexit as a move towards parochialism and insularity. It’s the wrong signal to send to business and the watching world; not only does it set the wrong tone, it will fail to get Britain fighting fit as a dynamic competitor in a globalised world.
It is now near universally accepted that the Brexit must mean tangible reductions in immigration yet, paradoxically, for Brexit to be a success we will need a liberal immigration policy. It is essential to get the balance right between our economic needs and responding to the public and restoring their trust, which is why the Conservative party re-committing to bringing down immigration to the “tens of thousands” is a folly of huge proportions.
The target, set arbitrarily and disingenuously by David Cameron, did so much to corrode public trust in politics and toxify the immigration debate because it was a pledge that he never intended to keep; it would have been eminently sensible to drop it. Theresa May has spurned a great opportunity to manage expectations and set a more realistic and achievable policy.
Consistently, year on year, at least half of incomers have been from outside the EU. Controlling immigration isn’t just a simple matter of leaving the EU and “Bob’s your Uncle”; it’s more complicated than that. Who can forget the fact that it was Theresa May who denounced the UK Border Agency as “not fit for purpose” when she announced plans to abolish it. There have been no signs since then that border controls have improved. Even within the rules of free movement the government could have controlled European immigration to a greater extent; the failure to do so was through a combination of a lack of will and a lack of competence.
Within a few short years the Prime Minister and her Cabinet will be in the position of having to explain, inevitably, why they have failed to meet the arbitrary target. If however by some miracle they do manage to meet it, they will instead have to defend the economic damage it has caused as the UK becomes a less attractive place to invest, a poorer place to do business, and a country that is no longer inviting for skilled and hard working people.
Our economic successes of recent years have come about because we are a business friendly beacon for global talent. We have successful and growing technology, creative, educational, financial and commercial sectors. Our universities are world renowned. Britain is a cultural dynamo like no other in Europe, an intellectual hotspot of the world; a hub of the arts, science, media and design. The reasons for this are multiple, but an absolutely key ingredient is people.
The British people are, for the most part, an industrious and creative lot, and when you add immigrants into the mix, it’s a magical combination. Our economic strength and soft power is boosted enormously by attracting students to our universities. If they remain here we benefit from their skills and talent, if they go to another country they take a little bit of Britain with them and the future businessmen among them will be back to invest.
Diversity is a launchpad for innovation. Workers with a variety of perspectives and backgrounds think in different ways and have different approaches to their work, creating a dynamic workplace culture and delivering better results. Entrepreneurs from the continent and beyond have helped to reinvigorate our economy. A study by the Royal Academy of Engineering found that approximately 25% of start ups in the UK have been founded by EU nationals, and 45% of their employees are from continental Europe.
This success story is under threat by the Tory pledge to “bear down on immigration from outside the EU” across all visas. Theresa May seems intent on repelling international students and isn’t receptive to the sensible idea of removing them from the net migration figures altogether. The government is ploughing ahead with the end of free movement and reducing European immigration without admitting the economic sacrifices that will be required. Doubling the “skills charge” for employers who hire non-EU immigrants in skilled jobs is a particularly repellent anti-business, anti-immigrant measure.
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Significant reductions in immigration from Europe can be achieved by ending access to benefits for EU migrants and essentially reserving public funds for British citizens. If this is combined with coordinated domestic policies to ensure people who are not entitled to be here leave, and using international development funding to alleviate economic disparities in Europe and beyond; the numbers will come down, and without needing to put up a “not welcome” sign at our door.
We can thrive as an independent country but not if we immediately put up barriers and disrupt the labour market. We need flexible labour regulation, open markets, low taxes and a business friendly economy with employers open to recruiting global talent. The leader who will make a success of Brexit will be one who reasserts our global identity as an open and liberal country. This is the key to our economic, cultural and social dynamism. It is the key to making a success of Brexit.