For all its ferocious momentum, Boris Johnson’s government is capable of making pretty bad mistakes – as we saw with Priti Patel’s announcement that free movement of people will end with Brexit on October 31. This is a massive problem, if it hasn’t worked out what regime will replace it. As I say in this week’s UK cover story, this decision plunged millions of European Union nationals into uncertainty. The Home Office has only managed to process one million of the three million living in the country. And what would happen to the other two million on October 31? If they change jobs, how would a French baker who has lived here for 30 years distinguish himself from a French baker just off the ferry if he starts a new job? What happens to employers who today hire a Dutch data analyst who would start, and relocate from Amsterdam, in three months’ time? Might this proposed £35k salary threshold apply? Would there be quotas.
That’s the problem with free movement: it’s not just about future migration. It’s the system that governs the lives of millions of British residents (and voters). To end it without carefully working out what follows after shows pretty striking thoughtlessness, especially towards EU nationals. That includes people like Anna Amato, who we interview in this week’s podcast, who has lived here for 50 years and denied permanent status. People like her who were personally and repeatedly promised by Michael Gove and Boris Johnson that Brexit would not adversely affect them. At stake is the credibility of the promises made by this new government.
But today, we also learn that the Johnson government is capable rectifying its mistake. The Sunday Times of London reveals that the Home Office has scrapped the October 31 headline after realizing the legal minefield it would open up. It’s good. But not good enough. Damage has been done to the reputation of the government and prime minister. The EU Settlement Scheme is issuing a suspiciously large number of people with temporary status (ie, five years) when they qualify for and deserve permanent status. Blaming the voters for clicking the wrong button (the Home Office’s instinctive reaction) might be plausible if this were just a handful of cases. But so far, a third of EU nationals who have applied have been placed in the lesser category: many of them shocked and upset to find themselves so. If the system is so confusing that people seeking permanent residence are temporary residence, it’s the Home Office’s problem. Which might soon become a Tory problem. The French baker I referred to is a real example. Richard Bertinet used the word ‘betrayed‘ to describe how he felt, and his story shocked locals. It has a huge ripple effect. A whole bunch of people wonder: is this what a Boris Brexit is all about?
Michael Gove is mindful of the danger, and of the need to do as well as say things to reassure people. When running for the Tory leadership a few months ago, he proposed free citizenship for EU nationals who wanted it, saving them up to £2,000 on fees. This is precisely the message that needs to be sent out if Johnson government is serious about a Brexit that reassures not just EU nationals but their friends, family, colleagues and neighbors.
If Britain is leaving the EU on October 31, a new battle will open up. Will we get the liberal Brexit explicitly promised by Michael Gove and Boris Johnson? Will it be about raising our sights to more distant horizons, going out, and into the world? Or will the Tories gravitate back into their old comfort zone, where their attempts to fight the Brexit party mean they end up mimicking Nigel Farage and snarling at EU migrants thinking this is the easiest way to harvest votes?
This article was originally published on The Spectator‘s UK website.