Theresa May’s deal is almost exactly the Brexit the UK voted for|Craig Berry

Craig Berry, Manchester Metropolitan University

Forgive me, I may have missed something. There has of course been a lot to take in over the last few days. But, despite what the latest former Brexit secretary believes, it seems to me that the Brexit withdrawal agreement delivers almost exactly what the UK voted for in June 2016.

The reasons 17.4m people voted to leave the EU were multiple, complex and, in part, contradictory. But it is beyond doubt that a desire to control immigration was the most important reason. The evidence in this regard is overwhelming.

There is of course a need to understand why immigration became such an important concern for many voters (I blame austerity, in terms of both its material impact and the conservative ideas it normalised). Nevertheless, for the moment, the Brexit deal delivers on this agenda.

Yet Dominic Raab and Esther McVey’s resignation letters make no specific reference to immigration. They note more vaguely that the Brexit deal betrays “the promises we made to the country”, or “does not honour the result of the referendum”.

There is some evidence to suggest that the slippery notion of sovereignty mattered for many voters, after immigration. “Take back control” was, after all, the key mantra of Vote Leave. But few people think in such abstract terms. The control people wanted to take back – the sovereignty that mattered – was over the UK’s borders.

May’s deal

The great irony of Theresa May’s current predicament is that only she, on the government benches, really seems to grasp this basic political reality. May is far closer to the core of public opinion – or at least the 2016 snapshot – than either the hard Brexiteers or the Tory remainers, as the deal she has agreed with the EU clearly demonstrates.

Although May supported Remain, principally because she understood the economic damage that Brexit would inflict, the author of the Home Office’s “hostile environment” agenda has always been an opponent of immigration.

Brexit is about border control.
1000 Words /

The deal addresses the status of existing EU migrants and contains some specific arrangements in Northern Ireland related to preventing a hard border on the island of Ireland – but there is little to suggest that the UK has been compelled to accept the continued free movement of labour. The seven-page political declaration outlining the future relationship with the EU, published alongside the 585-page deal, includes only 35 words on the mobility of people between the UK and EU. It emphasises that temporary mobility will be allowed “for business purposes in defined areas”, with “visa-free travel for short-term visits”.

In other words, Dutch bankers and French chefs will remain welcome. Bricklayers from eastern European accession countries: not so much.

Trade realities

In the long run this position cannot hold. If the UK wants to have a free trade deal with the EU that gets anywhere close to the market access enjoyed by, for instance, non-EU members of the European Economic Area or European Free Trade Association such as Norway and Switzerland, free movement is going to have to come back on the table. So, while the deal reflects what the country voted for in 2016, it is still deceitful in the sense that it is probably undeliverable.

That said, to even secure from the EU the implicit agreement that the “four freedoms” (the unhindered movement of goods, services, capital and people) are divisible after all, is a remarkable achievement by the May government. Or, more likely, it is a sign that the continuing members of the EU are, increasingly, led by governments who share May’s anti-immigration perspective.

Either way, it is the other three freedoms – trade policy, rather than immigration – which seem to be motivating the Brexiteers campaigning against May, despite the lack of evidence that this issue played a significant role in the leave vote.

They are correct in their criticism of May’s deal that it removes any likelihood that the UK will enjoy trade policy autonomy in the near future. At the same time, their opposition to May’s deal is logically inconsistent with their own argument that May has underplayed the UK’s hand. The trade negotiations that will now ensue, if parliament accepts the withdrawal deal, is their chance to prove that the EU does need the UK just as much as the UK needs the EU – and that it’s possible for the UK to secure long-term access to EU markets without undermining its trade policy autonomy.

Yet the resignations of Raab and McVey, and the earlier resignations of Boris Johnson and David Davis, jeopardise this opportunity. Raab’s letter states that the trade policy constraints implied by the Northern Ireland backstop mechanism are now “the starting point for negotiating the Future Economic Partnership. If we accept that, it will severely prejudice the second phase of negotiations against the UK”.

This is, plainly, nonsense. The “best of both worlds” trade deal the Brexiteers have been promising for more than two years would have overridden all of the transitional and backstop arrangements. Raab may have left May’s government, but by pretending that the withdrawal agreement will undermine our ability to forge a new trade relationship with the EU he is accepting that the UK’s position is not nearly as strong as previously claimed – and therefore reinforcing the rationale for May’s apparent capitulation.

May’s premiership might look like a mess, but I think she will be judged more kindly by history than it appears at the moment. The early decisions to rule out a second referendum and forgo a cross-party approach to negotiations will of course be seen as catastrophic errors of judgement. She paid the price with the loss of her parliamentary majority at the 2017 general election.

But she has been rather successful, since then, at clawing out of the hole she dug for herself – and indeed delivering on her primary policy objective and the preferences expressed by the public in 2016.

How history will judge those now seeking to replace May, despite the palpable lack of any alternative plan for EU withdrawal, is quite another matter.The Conversation

Craig Berry, Reader in Political Economy, Manchester Metropolitan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


3 thoughts on “Theresa May’s deal is almost exactly the Brexit the UK voted for|Craig Berry

  1. You are mistaken in thinking that immigration was the main motivation for Leave voters. Several exit polls made it clear that the main issue was sovereignty. Immigration came a distant second. You’re referencing of a newspaper article to support your article is bad scholarship. This is doubly so when the newspaper in question has proven partisan and also that the study discussed makes no direct claims about voters’ motivations. It simply says that those worried about immigration were more likely to vote leave. You are putting your own interpretation on the facts.


    1. In defence of the author, the citation for the Independent is a secondary citation for the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey by the National Centre for Social Research, and that study did show a correlation between ‘concerns about immigration’ and ‘voted to leave’.

      The study didn’t question people directly on why they voted the way they did in the referendum, but rather assessed the correlations, on the methodological basis that “people aren’t the best guides to how they voted” (comment from Roger Harding, head of public attitudes at NCSR). He went on to conclude that “we did a deeper and more accurate assessment by calculating close correlations. We found the Leave vote relates to concerns about immigration and education. Many politicians have come out and said it was all about sovereignty and other things, but our findings indicate this isn’t the case.”

      These findings were mirrored in the 23rd June 2016 Economist/Ipsos MORI poll (also cited in Craig Berry’s article), which found that, just prior to the vote, immigration (48%) was a larger concern to voters than the NHS (37%) and the EU itself (32%). These findings closely correlated with the earlier Ipsos MORI Political Monitor (published 16th June). This is also supported by the Centre for Social Investigation’s (CSI) report (also cited in the article), which found that the reason with the highest average preference for leave voters was ‘to regain control over EU immigration’. The reason with the second highest average was that they ‘didn’t want the EU to have any role in UK law-making’.

      One thing that the commentators can be accused of, however, is an over-focus on certain issues. The CSI study, for instance, highlighted that, while immigration was the most important issue in deciding the leave vote, remain voters consistently overestimated the importance of immigration to leavers by a margin of about 20% [from 39 % to 59%] – adding weight to the idea that there is an amount of ‘dismissal as racism’ in the remain counter-argument. Equally, the importance of the sovereignty argument was generally underestimated by remainers by a margin of about 20% [14-15%], whereas in reality, the study put it in second at 34%, behind immigration [39%] by a small 5-point margin.

      By all means, question the legitimacy of that single study from the NCSR – there are questions to be asked about the methodological choices. Equally, there is a case to be made that the issue of sovereignty is under-identified as significant by commentators. But to imply that the author is somehow being a bad scholar because of that is misleading, as there are reams of opinion polls, surveys, think-tank studies, reports, and detailed analyses, the vast majority of which point the finger towards immigration being the deciding issue, cited alongside that one, which make the same point.


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