On 24 June, Boris Johnson had just pulled off the gamble of his life. The blonde pretender’s decision to back Leave had helped bring an insurgent campaign to victory and force the Prime Minister’s resignation. The political establishment was in smoking ruins, but the path to No 10 was clear.
Less than a week later, though, everything had changed. Johnson was forced to tell journalists at his campaign launch that he was pulling out. It seems the issue that scuppered him was immigration. Johnson has never been a convincing border patrol guard. As the country digested Brexit, he wrote in The Telegraph that: “It is said that those who voted Leave were mainly driven by anxieties about immigration. I do not believe that is so.”
His fellow Leave campaigner Michael Gove seems to have thought differently. A leaked email from his wife discussed the need for “specifics” on what many believe to be immigration controls. Announcing his campaign launch on Thursday morning – minutes after alerting Johnson to the fact – Gove declared that voters “told us to restore democratic control of immigration policy”. Of course, Gove is not alone in the contest to be PM of Brexit Britain. But with the Classics scholar Johnson out of the way, a consensus on a tougher immigration policy looks likely.
A relaxed Theresa May (pictured) laid out her arguments on Thursday morning as well, and although she backtracked from earlier calls to quit the European Convention on Human Rights, she is clearly playing to the audience when it comes to immigration. During the EU referendum campaign, she quietly backed Remain but nevertheless called for “more control” over EU citizens working in the UK. At her leadership launch, she expressed a desire to cut net migration by tens of thousands each year. “Any attempt to wriggle out” of regaining control “will be unacceptable to the public”, she said.
Stephen Crabb, another contender, has already described ending free movement as a “red line”, while Liam Fox wants an Australian-style points based system to apply to EU migrants. Of course, condemning “uncontrolled” EU immigration is one thing. Agreeing on whether immigration per se is too high is another. Some Leave campaigners argued they only wanted a level playing field for EU or non-EU migrants.
But the Tory candidates face a bigger risk. The public may lap up anti-immigration rhetoric, the party members might vote accordingly, but it leaves little room to manoevre when it comes to negotiating trade deals with the European Union. Even the cool-headed German chancellor Angela Merkel has made it clear access to the single market is reserved for those who accept the free movement of people, as well as capital and goods.
If the successful candidate also wants to be successful in government, they will have to find a way of redefining the debate, quickly.