Brexit was never about controlling immigration – but it is now.
I don’t simply mean that immigration wasn’t the subject on the ballot paper (although it wasn’t), I mean that it wasn’t the driving force of those arguing for Brexit (in most cases anyway). It might well have been the main argument they used to win the referendum, but that’s a different question.
Looking back at the statements of some of the leading Brexiteers, they started out being quite positive about the economic benefits of migration, almost seeing it as a peripheral issue. But it became clear that they were losing the economic argument, so they fell back on the argument that had most leverage with the target electorate. It was a cynical ploy, of course; but it worked. There was a large undercurrent of opposition to immigration, and that was effectively marshalled to support an entirely different objective.
It matters little that many of those opposed to immigration were more opposed to non-EU immigration than EU migration (there’s an obvious racist element involved in that), or that leaving the EU could have no impact on that non-EU immigration. The Brexiteers successfully conflated two very different issues and ended up winning a majority on the back of that tactic.
It’s then that the problems really started. Most of them never expected to win, and some of them, at least, seemed not really to have wanted to win. The UKIP brigade did, of course, along with the more extreme elements of the Tory Party; but for many in the Tory Party it was more about resolving the internal politics of their party than about the future of the UK.
However, win they did, albeit narrowly, and in the process of pulling that off they created a wholly unrealistic expectation that the UK could retain the economic benefits of membership whilst ending freedom of movement. And having encouraged the genie of immigration control out of the bottle, they now find themselves in a position where they are afraid not to deliver on the promises made (even if those expected to do the delivering weren’t the ones who made the promises).So, although controlling immigration really wasn’t the central driver for most of these seeking the exit door, fear of voter reaction to any failure to meet the expectations raised has now become the prime driver for those tasked with delivery. That sets a context for everything else.