Brexit Leaders Back Away From Migration Promises After Victory

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  • After campaigning on immigration, Johnson backs open borders
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Campaigners to get Britain out of the European Union won their shock victory by building an alliance of older and less-educated voters angry about the way globalization has changed their lives. Now they’re telling people they won’t get what they want.

Vote Leave explicitly targeted people concerned about immigration, warning them that millions of Turks were on their way to Britain. The morning after they won Boris Johnson, their leading spokesman and the favorite to succeed David Cameron as prime minister, began backing away from that message.

Nigel Farage launches a national poster campaign on June 16.
Nigel Farage launches a national poster campaign on June 16.
Photographer: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

“I want to speak directly to the millions of people who did not vote for this outcome, especially young people, who may feel that this decision in some way involves pulling up a drawbridge,” he said. “I think the very opposite is true. We can control our own borders in a way that is not discriminatory but fair and balanced, and take the wind out of the sails of the extremists and those who would play politics with immigration.”

Johnson’s discomfort with the campaign tactics that delivered him victory reflect a deep division within the backers of Brexit. Many at the top want a liberal, free market, low-regulation country modeled on London, the city Johnson led for eight years. Johnson proposed an amnesty for illegal immigrants, and said anyone with a job should be able to come to the country. But the people whose votes they relied on want dramatically reduced immigration and more regulation, even if it means being poorer.

‘Crucial Split’

“It’s a crucial split within the Leave group,” said Gerry Stoker, professor of political science at Southampton University. “It was absolutely clear that a lot of their supporters weren’t just voting for ending new immigration, but for sending back existing immigrants.”

The spokesman for anti-migrant angst isn’t Johnson, but Nigel Farage, whose U.K. Independence Party helped force the referendum in the first place. Farage has long wanted to get out of the EU, but only began to succeed once he linked it in people’s minds to immigration. His argument was that “I’d rather we weren’t slightly richer and I’d rather we had communities that felt more united.”

In the early days of the referendum campaign, Vote Leave rejected an approach focused on immigration, partly because few of their principal spokesmen supported it. But in the final month, it reversed that stance. Farage, frozen out of the official campaign, went further, publishing a poster showing refugees entering the EU that Leave supporter Michael Gove said made him “shudder”.

Taking Sides

With the battle won, those around Farage are determined that the focus on immigration shouldn’t be abandoned. “Entirely reasonable to believe that the Conservative Party learned nothing from this vote,” wrote Arron Banks, Farage’s principal donor, on Twitter when he read Johnson’s pro-immigration comments.

If Johnson hopes to lead the country, he will need to decide whose side he’s on. He’s already tasting the problems of taking sides. A popular former London Mayor, he had the jarring experience of winning the country but not his own city, which voted strongly for “Remain.” The day of his triumph, he left his house to be greeted with an angry crowd and shouts of “scum.”

Quoting Greek

Meanwhile polling by former Conservative lawmaker Michael Ashcroft found a clear correlation between age and likelihood to vote for a Brexit. Some 60 percent of the over-65s and 57 percent of those aged 55 to 64 voted to leave the bloc, compared with just 27
percent of those aged 18 to 24. A study by YouGov found that those with university degrees voted strongly for “Remain,” while those who left school at 16 voted strongly for “Leave.”

Johnson, a wealthy man who went to Eton, one of the world’s most prestigious schools, and is given to quoting Latin and Greek, is on the other side of the argument from the young and the educated. If he wants to win them back, and follow his own instincts, it will be at the cost of disappointing the people whose support helped him win this week.

And if he does succeed in replacing Cameron as prime minister, any meaningful trade deal negotiated with the EU will likely require some concessions on the free movement of people. The Swiss government spent the last two years seeking a way to introduce restrictions for newcomers without having to annul a bilateral deal with the EU that would cost Swiss output an estimated 32 billion francs ($33 billion) a year.

“Delivering the full package of what many people think they voted for is highly unlikely,” said Peter Paul Catterall, reader in history, sociology and criminology at the University of Westminster. “The process will be messy. Because of the inevitable mismatch between the expectations that have been raised and any likely results, it could also get ugly.”

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