The Gaffe By Tony Blair That Could Have Caused Brexit

After the shock result in June’s EU Referendum, the UK is firmly heading down the path marked Brexit.

Prime Minister Theresa May has hosted a Cabinet meeting at Chequers focusing on the UK’s plans to leave the EU and has firmly insisted there will be no second referendum and that “Brexit means Brexit”.

Of course, this is all happening because of the tight vote in the referendum - but how did we get to the point where we are now?

Many argue that former Prime Minister Tony Blair paved the way for Brexit.

More specifically, they cite a mistake made by the once popular Labour leader that led to a butterfly effect that will now see the United Kingdom no longer being a member of the EU.

On 1 May 2004 - three years before Mr Blair quit as PM - 10 countries joined the EU in what was the single largest expansion of the project.

Expansion: Ten more countries joined the EU in 2004 (Wikipedia)

Known as the A10, these countries were made up mainly of former Eastern Bloc and included Poland, Hungary, Latvia and Lithuania.

And it was Mr Blair’s decisions surrounding the mass expansion that some believe set Britain firmly on course for Brexit.

Labour made the decision to not place restrictions on the free movement of workers from the new EU member countries.

However, most EU states - including France and Germany - imposed transitional controls to slow down the rate of migration, meaning just Britain, Ireland and Sweden took the bulk of migrants looking for work.

Immigration was already a concern to some of those in the cabinet, despite a report in 2000 suggesting that there were major economic benefits to the country from it.

Performance and Innovation Unit deputy director Jonathan Portes, who was on the group behind the report, said: “We pushed this. It was not pushed by the politicians, and by politicians I mean David Miliband specifically.

“It wasn’t that David didn’t think it was interesting, he just thought that the political costs and benefits of doing it were not positive.”

Sceptical: David Miliband worried about the political costs of free movement to the UK (Rex)

With free movement to the UK now on the table for workers in EU states, the 13,000 annual arrivals predicted in a Home Office report turned out to be a lot more - in fact, it ended up being over a million in the following years, at a rate of 247,000 a year in the final five years of the last Labour government.

Christian Dustmann, one of the authors of the report, said: “The German labour market was basically closed for Polish workers and that kind of changed everything.”

David Blunkett, who was Home Secretary at the time, said: “It [the prediction] was too low. When they start talking about 13,000 you just start blanking out.”

However, he later added: “I’m confident that it [free movement] was the right decision, even though very few people now will stand up for it.

“I just think that allowing people to move [to the UK] but not to work would have been a complete own goal.”

Mr Blair knew only too well that immigration would be a problem - polls suggested it was becoming a huge concern for voters.

In fact, Sir Stephen Wall, head of the Cabinet Office’s European secretariat between 2000-04 recalled: “I remember him saying, very soon after the 2001 election, ‘The one thing that could lose me the next election is immigration.’”

New Britain: Mr Blair saw huge economic benefits of migration (Rex) 

Labour were already having issues with immigration before the EU expansion. Charles Clarke, who took over as home secretary in 2004, revealed: “We developed a massive backlog, particularly on asylum where we had cases waiting literally five years to be solved.

“That was the core problem that had built up behind an unmanageable set of issues. It was a complete nightmare and led to a sense of complete ungovernability of the whole system and that I think has undermined confidence in it.”

Southampton Itchen Labour MP John Denham aired his concerns about immigration in a memo to Tony Blair in 2006, that warned of higher immigration figures than predicted.

He said of his memo: “I sent a warning message to government about the impact of immigration in Southampton, saying Whitehall was not picking up quickly enough what was happening on the ground, or what the wider electorate were saying in response.”

He added in 2015: “The whole irony of this is that in some respects Tony Blair was obsessed by immigration, particularly about illegal immigration and abuse of the asylum system, but on EU migration there was a catastrophic failure of the civil service machine.”

Issue: Ukip leader Nigel Farage spoke out against immigration to the UK (Wikipedia)

And with immigration becoming more of a concern to Brits - especially those in northern heartlands - Ukip were ready and waiting to capitalise on a growing anti-immigration sentiment.

Once a party explicitly about leaving the EU, Ukip became the home to voters who were ignored after raising concerns about an influx of migrants putting pressure on services and employment.

The 2009 European parliament elections saw Labour come third behind Ukip, after Gordon Brown - who took over from Mr Blair as PM - failed to get a grip on the issue.

British politics had changed, and Labour, who had been a vote-winning machine for the previous decade, were now staring defeat in the face.

The electorate, now fed up with high levels of immigration, started to find a home in Ukip, who spoke out against the issue when Labour, who were still in power, failed to respond to their fears.

Things reached a head during the 2010 General Election campaign when Mr Brown was recorded calling lifelong Labour voter Gillian Duffy a “bigoted woman” when she spoke to him about her concerns over immigration.

Gaffe: Gordon Brown described Labour voter Gillian Duggy as a ‘bigoted woman’ (Wikipedia)

Only a year previous to the gaffe, Mr Brown said of immigration concerns: “People ask me, ‘Do you get it?’ Yes, I get it.”

Labour were booted out of office and Ukip continued to surge, securing huge votes in local elections, forcing the bigger parties to finally talk openly about immigration - pushing the now in power Tories to shift right on the issue.

Ed Miliband, who was Labour leader at the time, admitted that the last Labour government had “got it wrong” when they allowed free movement without restrictions, adding: “We became too disconnected from the concerns of working people.”

With Mr Farage now a constant figure on TV screens, Ukip were pulling Tory - and Labour - voters into their welcoming arms and the pressure was kept up on the demand for an EU referendum.

In 2013, in an attempt to silence Ukip and pull back voters, David Cameron announced that there would be the promise of a referendum in the Tory manifesto for the 2015 General Election.

Success: The Vote Leave campaign pushed hard for Brexit (Geograph)

Whether it played a part in the surprise Tory outright victory or not, the promise had been made and a date for the EU Referendum was announced on 23 June 2016.

With immigration still the number one concern of voters following years of free movement from EU states that Mr Blair had not imposed controls on, the Vote Leave campaign focused hard on the issue.

The shock result saw Britain vote to leave the EU - with many votes coming from the traditional Labour heartlands that had deserted the party after seeing their communities particularly affected by falling wages and low employment.

Now, with Brexit pushing ahead, Britain is on the road to leaving the EU for good - and the roots can justifiably be traced back to that single decision on free movement Mr Blair made in 2004.

No regrets: Tony Blair refuses to accept he made a mistake on freedom of movement (Wikipedia)

Despite criticism from figures in his own party like Ed Miliband and John Denham for his decision over the years, Mr Blair refuses to accept that he was wrong.

He told a Channel 4 documentary last year: “I don’t agree it was a mistake.

“All we did was bring forward what would have happened anyway. In 2004 the economy was booming and we had a requirement for skilled workers from abroad.

“Supposing you put all those people from Eastern Europe back out of Britain again would we be a stronger better country? The answer is no.”

Those who blame him for Brexit may no longer agree…

Top pic: Wikipedia