The debate over immigration would continue to rage even if the UK had voted to remain in the EU. Indeed, with fresh figures showing that non-EU migrants made up the bulk of recent arrivals, one could argue it would rage all the harder if we hadn’t voted to ‘take back control’.
But with splits emerging in government over how to handle the issue in a post-Brexit world, the topic will remain high on the agenda in the years ahead. Last week ended with reports that foreign secretary Boris Johnson had let EU ambassadors know that he supports the freedom of movement.
This was emphatically denied by Boris, who says he was misquoted and that in fact he supports controls on immigration. One thing is clear though: Boris isn’t an anti-immigration politician. While dealing with the fallout from last week’s story, he also suggested (perfectly sensibly) that international students should be removed from the government’s migration figures.
In this he will likely find an ally in chancellor Philip Hammond, who (as foreign secretary) sided with George Osborne on the issue when the former chancellor clashed repeatedly with Theresa May on the policy. Since then, May has moved from home secretary to the top job in No 10 and still appears committed to a net migration target in the tens of thousands.
Meanwhile, Brexit secretary David Davis has suggested the government will act to ensure key sectors retain access to migrant labour. This could mean hospitality, agriculture and the care sector, as well as financial services, academia and technology. Facebook and Google have both committed to large-scale investment in the UK in recent weeks, but have also both made the point that access to international talent remains of vital importance. It appears their concerns have not fallen on deaf ears.
All of this marks a welcome change from the government’s anti-migration rhetoric of previous months, which at one stage included a ludicrous threat to force companies to publish a register of foreign employees. If the foreign secretary, chancellor and Brexit secretary can make the case for a liberal and pragmatic post-Brexit immigration settlement, it would be welcome. There has never been a more important time to demonstrate that the UK plans to remain an open and outward-looking economy.