Advertisement

Split between prime minister and business secretary on immigration

May and Clark disagree on how long it will take to implement the new immigration policy. Credit: PA

Although Monday's big story will be what the government chooses to say and withhold about the legal advice it received on whether the Northern Ireland backstop is a Brexit purgatory with no possibility of escape to heaven, the confirmation from the home secretary that there will be no immigration white paper before the big Brexit vote also matters.

It highlights a Cabinet split, not on the substance of the new immigration policy - which is that all immigration from everywhere in the world, including the EU, will be subject to new controls - but on its implementation.

The essence of the policy is that there will be an end to free movement of people from the EU, there will be severe restrictions on immigration of those with low or no skills, and the quantum of people with so-called high skills coming to the UK will be determined by demand.

Very importantly, there will no longer be any numerical ceiling on the number of people coming to the UK with high skills.

Which is a big deal.

Britain intends to curb the free movement of people from the EU. Credit: PA

It means, for example, that the NHS will be able to recruit any number of foreign doctors it needs.

And it presumably explains how the home secretary can say, as he did this morning, that he is "a fan of immigration".

But employers have varying degrees of emotion about the new policy, from wariness to blind terror.

The reasons are:

  • many businesses, in industries from care to construction to hospitality, are hugely dependent on a bottomless supply of east European labour
  • businesses fear the new definition of "skilled" versus "unskilled" will be too crude and will lead to shortages of really important people in really important industries (like IT - where the government's idea that all high skilled people earn at least £30,000 a year is regarded as woefully wrong)
  • even those businesses who accept the politics of the new policy say they will need several years to implement it.
New definitions of 'skilled and 'unskilled' workers will kick in. Credit: PA

It is on that last point that the last big divide in the Cabinet has not been bridged.

That disagreement is between the PM, who thinks the immigration-policy implementation period should be the same as the Brexit implementation period, namely 21 months ending 31 December 2020, and the business secretary Greg Clark, who takes the side of big businesses who say they need a year or two more.

You may think this is a tedious argument about process.

But of course it goes much deeper - because if the PM stood up and said it would take years for the immigration policy to be implemented, that would play into fears that Brexit itself will take years longer to really happen than the 21 months of formal transition or implementation.

And that would not be a clever thing to admit when most of Parliament is already ganged up against her Brexit plan.

Also, the PM is desperate for businesses to come out and cheer lead for her Brexit plan, which they are much less likely to do if she publishes an immigration white paper that gives them the heeby-jeebies.