When the Brexit campaign launched, some of the key points were:

  • Control of the borders and net migration
  • Getting rid of the EU red tape
  • Save money spent on EU membership and fund NHS instead
  • Help the local industry (fishing, farming, etc.) by re-adjusting regulations and benefit from better trade deals and tarrifs
  • Reduce the cost of living and EU austerity

The ballot for the Brexit referendum did not specify any priorities among the above targets. It was just a Stay or Leave vote.

However, when the goverment started working on triggering Article 50, the PM decided that the highest priority was the immigration control.

A part of the Brexit campaign was aiming at leaving the EU control but not the single market as economists warned about the risks of losing the EU trade deal. There are targets that have been conflicting the sacrifice of trade deals in order to secure border control. Is there any objective process that the government used to decide that the border controls were more important than other priorities?

Why or how was the British vote interpreted in such a way that it made obvious that border control was the highest priority? Why did the government decide to work hard on reducing the net immigration instead of, e.g., funding NHS?

  • 31
    Worth considering that immigrants are a popular scapegoat these days for politicians from the far-left to the far-right, from North America to Australia (and everywhere in between). I guess now that we can't blame everything on the Jews or the blacks or the gays, someone has to be to blame for all of society's ills... may as well pick a group that can't vote, I suppose. Jun 19, 2017 at 4:38
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    Maybe the fact that 335M£/week to fund NHS and reduce the cost of living are science fiction helps to start with the more populist point. Of course, the concept of foreign changed since the referendum (looks like now EU people are not foreign :) ) Jun 19, 2017 at 6:31
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    The large amount of support for UKIP (12.6% in 2015 GE and 26.6% (placing 1st) in the 2014 EUP elections) should be taken into account as well. The referendum didn't happen in a vacuum. UKIP stood on a platform that prioritized immigration and were, for a single issue non-major party taking part in First Past the Post elections, were massively successful.
    – Nathan
    Jun 19, 2017 at 13:04
  • Relevant from the LSE: blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexit/2017/06/19/…
    – pjc50
    Jun 19, 2017 at 13:44

3 Answers 3


Although Immigration was not the only thing on the agenda during the Brexit referendum, it was certainly the most emotionally charged one.

As this poll showed;

  • The number 1 priority for leave voters at 49% was regaining sovereignty,

    Nearly half (49%) of leave voters said the biggest single reason for wanting to leave the EU was “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”.

  • While the number 2 priority was controlling immigration at 33%.

    One third (33%) said the main reason was that leaving “offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders.”

Now leaving the EU, means that it is a given guarantee that British parliament would remain sovereign and decisions would be taken in Westminster. However it is not innately guaranteed that Britain would control immigration if they left the EU, therefore for several of the people whose number 1 priority may have been about sovereignty, they are likely to switch down to the number 2 priority of controlling immigration.

Therefore one could consider that the priority for a government trying to negotiate Brexit would be to control immigration.

  • So 33% of Bexit voters (53%) voted to secure the Border control. This is no more than 18% of the voters. On the other hand, 44% of the remainers (48%) did not want to risk leaving the Single market. This is 21% of the total voters, according to this poll.
    – yannicuLar
    Jun 18, 2017 at 19:24
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    The Single Market is tied to Freedom of Movement of People and the other core value of the EU. Once a government has committed to leave, it means leaving the single market, although it can negotiate for tariff free access to the single market. Jun 18, 2017 at 19:38
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    @yannicuLar : No, your calculation is incorrect. The numbers you arrived to are the voters for whom immigration control was the most important. It's not that for all the rest of the voters it's not important at all. It might be at the second or third place.
    – vsz
    Jun 19, 2017 at 5:44

Nothing firm to back this up, but part of the answer might simply be that controlling (which I suppose means "reducing") immigration is an achievable goal.

Fixing the problems of the NHS and/or bringing down cost of living are massive undertakings that will not be accomplished by simply leaving the European Union. To the best of my knowledge the current British government (inasfar as there is one at the moment) has not made detailed policy proposals on how to bring the desired outcome about, but even if there are any best laid plans they might eventually go awry.

In contrast, controlling immigration basically means telling people to go away. This might just be something that is within Theresa May's grasp, so making immigration the top priority could be seen as an attempt to lower the bar enough that somebody with two left feet can jump it, and proclaim success at at least one policy goal.

  • 2
    I think this dramatically understates the difficulties associated with telling millions of people, many of whom have been resident for years, to "go away"! Not to mention what happens if reciprocal free movement is ended. What happens if the UK kicks out Spanish nationals and in response the few million UK national OAPs living in Spain are also kicked out?
    – pjc50
    Jun 19, 2017 at 11:29
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    For that matter what happens if the foreign workforce leaves the NHS. I haven't really discovered much rhyme and reason in current UK policies (and I don't mean Brexit per se, which I think could be reasonably negotiated, but rather the actual execution). But it is possible to turn a number of applicants away at the borders and claim it as a big success.
    – user10415
    Jun 19, 2017 at 11:35
  • @pjc50 removing EU nationals shouldn't be too hard, you issue them a polite letter and most will go away voluntarily. Removing nationals of developing countries or refugees is a lot harder in comparison, which is why it's strange that intra-EU immigration is such a large issue. Sep 1, 2017 at 17:20
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    @EikePierstorff yes but in practice they've granted more visas to non-EU nationals as compared to the number of EU immigrants. All while they could've completely shut down non-EU immigration by passing a single law. Sep 2, 2017 at 21:06
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    And remember those Brits who live in not-UK Europe, those most affected by the referendum, did not have a vote.
    – RedSonja
    Mar 6, 2018 at 7:26

You're asking us to read the minds of the government, and that's not easy. They're probably influenced by two factors: (a) what will win votes, and (b) what will be good for the country.

As regards (a), the trigger for the referendum was the high level of support for UKIP, most of which represented anxiety about immigration, and the Tories clearly wanted these voters on board. It's probably fair to say that some of these anxieties are primarily economic (wages being undercut) and some are social (on a spectrum from concerns about traditional British values being eroded through to blatant racism).

As regards (b), there are arguments both ways. Apart from the argument that we have a moral duty to help those who wish to come to this country (which you may or may not accept), there is an economic case in favour of immigration in that the economy benefits from the availability of cheap labour, and there is a case against in that growth in population especially in the crowded South-East creates a lot of pressure on infrastructure such as housing, transport, hospitals, and schools (and the growth in population is largely due to immigration).

Determining how the government weighs up these different factors is something that journalists love to speculate on, but I don't think you'll ever get an accurate answer.

  • No, what the government actually wants to achieve is irrelevant to me. I just don't understand how do they get away interpreting the vote whichever way is convenient for them, using a PM that was not elected at the time.
    – yannicuLar
    Jun 19, 2017 at 11:10
  • 1
    "how do they get away interpreting the vote whichever way is convenient for them, using a PM that was not elected at the time" - welcome to the Westminster system. Once elected, a majority of MPs can do almost anything. Manifestoes are only relevant if they need to invoke the Salisbury convention.
    – pjc50
    Jun 19, 2017 at 11:27
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    The UK already had the means to control non-EU immigration and did nothing for years, though.
    – kat0r
    Jun 19, 2017 at 13:33
  • You wouldn't expect them to interpret the vote in a way that is inconvenient to them, would you? And the idea that the PM is directly rather than indirectly elected seems a very common belief, but it's completely wrong. Parliament can anoint a new PM at any time without calling a new general election. Jun 19, 2017 at 14:01

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