Theresa May Must Guarantee the Rights of EU Citizens in Britain

In a fair world the Conservative party would be suffering of the agonies of the damned. The EU referendum split their party down the middle between Remainers and Brexiteers. The result caused the third downfall in a row of a Tory prime minister over the European issue. It should worry opponents that Brexit has increased their dominance of politics.

Instead, it is Labour that suffers in the political circles of hell.

Last week’s vote to trigger Article 50 saw only one Conservative rebel, Ken Clarke; forty seven Labour MPs, including frontbenchers and whips, voted against Jeremy Corbyn’s three-line whip. Over a quarter of the parliamentary party did not support the official position.

A majority of Labour voters supported Remain, but 70% of Labour MPs now represent Brexit-supporting seats. The referendum result has precipitated the greatest challenge to Britain’s two party system in memory, with views on Brexit taking precedent over party affiliation. Any Labour leader would find formulating a post-Brexit position difficult. However, Labour’s woes have been compounded by their chaotic leadership.

That predictions of immediate economic downturn did not materialised have helped the Tories. The other reason they have avoided meltdown is the generally assured manner which Theresa May has played her party and the country. She has a consistent position on Brexit. Labour does not.

Corbyn was not even able to make political hay out of her desperate visit to President Trump or the humiliation he heaped upon her when he signed his immigration executive order.

May's dominance in the polls will continue because all voters need do is look at the incompetent alternative. In any meaningful sense of the term, Britain is no longer a functioning two-party state.

Beggars cannot be choosers. Taking back control is a myth

For all that, there are obvious risks for the prime minister. Despite the optimism of her Lancaster House speech, she holds very few decent cards in her hand. Her aim of providing a bridge between the EU and Trump’s America was given even shorter shrift than previous British leaders. Her isolation - far from splendid - is palpable. Once Article 50 is triggered she will cede further control.

The backlash she faced after her Trump visit may not have been as great as opponents hoped, but it revealed the weakness of Brexit Britain. Leaving the single market will cost Britain more than any crumbs a UK/US free trade deal will bring. Beggars cannot be choosers. Taking back control is a myth.

The controversy also revealed something else: Theresa May’s lack of generosity. Although she eventually condemned the ban, she was not able to turn her opposition into a statement of inclusive values. Brexit may have been a vote for control over immigration but only hardened racists are content to see their country as mean-spirited.

The row and the Commons Brexit debates bring to the fore the prime minister’s position on the right to remain of EU nationals after the final EU divorce deal, an issue where she is out of step with her party and the country. When she stood for the leadership she refused to give any guarantee, even when her eventual opponent, Andrea Leadsom, had done.

There are some 1.2 million Britons living in EU countries. 3.2 million EU national currently living in Britain. They constitute 5% of the population but 7% of the workforce. The uncertainty is economically disruptive.

May’s bill does not mention what will happen to the people from the 27 remaining member states who are living, working or studying in the UK.

As MPs begin to debate and voting proposed amendments, May faces a rebellion on an amendment to guarantee protection for EU nationals living in the UK.

The amendment would “not grant any new rights, but would simply seek to preserve the current residence rights of those EU citizens lawfully in the UK at the time of the referendum vote." It has cross-party support.

Theresa May needs to show her love for Europe

Perhaps the greatest mistake observers made of the then Home Secretary as she declared her leadership intentions was that she was a safe pair of hands. They saw in her cold calculation an aversion to risk. Events are disproving this.

While the Spanish government may have spoken favourably of a early reciprocal deal on nationals abroad, it may not be enough. At the moment, with Labour support, she is risking unnecessary defeat.

Undoubtedly the prime minister would survive. It would be, as far as domestic politics is concerned, a minor embarrassment. Yet it would speak to her lack of generosity. Her refusal to see Brexit as anything other than a series of soulless trade-offs - of which EU nationals in Britain are part - is alienating the 27 emotionally.

In Philadelphia speaking to US Republicans, she was quite different.

“How could Mrs May make such a generous speech about the United States, honouring its history, its values and its global role, only six days after Mr Trump swore the presidential oath - when a whole 206 days after she became our second female prime minister, and 226 days after the Brexit vote, she still hasn’t made any equivalent gesture to the peoples of Europe?”

Not the words of a Remain enthusiast but of ConservativeHome founder and Brexiteer, Tim Montgomerie.

Well, quite.

Theresa May needs to show her love for Europe and the way she can start is by unilaterally offering those EU residents already here the right to stay.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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