The ‘dog days’ of August get their name from the dog star Sirius which is visible at this time of year, it is not true that the minority government of Boris Johnson will be known to history as the dog days of the conservative party – a two hundred year old party now at odds with its heritage sponsors in business and finance. A party Tony Blair says is suffering from a rare bout of ideology.
How did it come to this? We need to take a long view and not just the three years since the referendum, but the ten years since the EU expanded eastwards. The addition of Poland, Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria was hardly noticed then, but today you will find the UK hospitality and social care industries awash with eastern Europeans quietly and diligently doing jobs on low pay or zero hours contracts. This is simply economic migration a reflection of employment opportunity.
Ten years ago UKIP started to talk about immigration appealing to conservative protectionism. This mattered more under a Cameron government than it had under Blair, so he lobbied the EU for a halt to ‘Free Movement’ to protect UK jobs. He was reminded this principle is one of the four freedoms at the core of the EU ideology and non-negotiable.
UK immigration could only be restricted from non-EU sources. Cue the hostile environment from the Home Office which prevented Indian doctors from working in the NHS and victimised legitimate immigrants through policies epitomised by the Windrush scandal. This didn’t stem the tide of cheap labour from Europe but it did cement the Tory party image in a phrase once used by Theresa May : the ‘Nasty party’. Cameron again lobbied the EU proposing UK border controls on EU migrants.
Failing to secure any support inside the EU, Cameron rashly decided on a referendum in June 2016. Presented as a plebiscite on EU membership, this was primarily a tactic to strengthen the conservative party and arrest the increasing appeal of UKIP and the immigration question. It was presented as an issue of sovereignty, but the Leave campaign won the votes of 17 million people based on a deliberately ill-defined understanding of what sovereignty actually meant.
The past three years have seen a political polarisation between Remainers and Leavers, each believing their own news stories and impact assessment forecasts. With the clock now counting down to Halloween, the debate has shifted to the Irish backstop and its role as a deal breaker. The EU – understandably given Schengen and free movement – wants a defined border if the UK leaves, it is not important if it stays within the EU.
The UK government view is that this can’t be a land border which risks peace in Ireland, and it can’t be a maritime one as this will split the union. This is a political problem the UK created and the EU cannot solve: it is not about sovereignty but a border and the checks which must be made at it. The EU border has to be somewhere that can be policed given the freedom of movement within in, and the risk of abuse by illegal entrants. Threatening to leave without a deal doesn’t actually address the question of border integrity so is simply posturing and petulance.
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