May’s Government Facing Split Over Plan to List Foreign Workers

  • Minister condemns plan to make companies list foreign workers
  • Senior Tories say policy wouldn’t pass vote in Parliament

Splits emerged in Prime Minister Theresa May’s U.K. government over her vision for immigration just days after a speech designed to unite her party behind Brexit.

A government minister speaking on condition of anonymity condemned a proposal to force companies to list foreign workers, proposed by Home Secretary Amber Rudd at the Conservative Party conference on Tuesday, as illegal, discriminatory and said it would have to be abandoned because it would not pass a vote in Parliament.

Grant Shapps

Photographer: Matt Lloyd/Bloomberg

Grant Shapps, the former Conservative Party chairman, called on Rudd and May to ditch the “pernicious” plan.

Follow @Brexit for the latest news, and sign up to our Brexit Bulletin for a daily roundup.

“I am sure this was an idea that was slipped in by well-meaning officials,” Shapps said in an interview. “Vilifying foreign workers at a time when Britain needs to show it is open for business in this post-Brexit world is just about the last thing that businesses need. There are plenty of lessons from history that show separating people out like this is a very bad idea.”

Hard Brexit

The proposals added to evidence that curbs on immigration would be May’s priority, putting the U.K. on course for a so-called hard Brexit and sending shock waves through markets and the pound to a 31-year low. Rudd’s comments and May’s quip in her Wednesday speech that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere” dominated talk on the sidelines at the International Monetary Fund meeting in Washington. Officials also expressed concern that the U.K. still didn’t appear to have a clear plan for its exit from the European Union.

Under the proposals from Rudd and her team, companies would have to list the non-U.K. nationals who work for them. Suggested measures included banks and landlords facing sanctions if they fail to make checks on foreigners doing business with them. The next day, May in a speech attacked “the people in position of power who behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass on the streets.”

Slim Majority

Their reception by some members of her government also underline the relative fragility of May’s governing majority. With a slender 17-seat edge in Parliament, she must ensure the support of her whole party for proposals to pass into law. The minister said the immigration proposal had gone down like a “bag of vomit” and was widely opposed among government colleagues.

Another senior government official who declined to be identified suggested the proposals had been over-interpreted and sat uneasily with Rudd’s reputation for being one of the more liberal members of the Conservative Party. Still, the official acknowledged much of the damage had already already done by the way the proposals were received.

Philip Hammond

Photographer: Christopher Goodney/Bloomberg

Both speeches made for an uncomfortable start to Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond’s visit to the U.S. for the IMF meetings, which started with a series of meetings in New York to reassure U.S. finance chiefs that the U.K. was still open for business.

“The problem is not highly skilled workers, highly paid bankers,” Hammond said in an interview with Bloomberg Television in New York Thursday. “The issue we have to deal with are entry-level jobs and that’s the challenge.”

Tensions within the government are also mounting over Britain’s future membership of the European customs union. Trade secretary Liam Fox’s support for an exit is pitting him against Hammond, who suggested on Thursday leaving the union could spell a “frictional cost” for exporters by imposing greater border regulations on them. Staying in the union means the U.K. cannot strike trade deals with other countries.