Leading Brexit campaigners have tried to seize back the initiative in the referendum campaign with a warning that the UK faces a migration “free-for-all” unless it breaks aways from Brussels.
The justice secretary, Michael Gove, and the former work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, attempted to refocus the debate after Barack Obama put the leave campaign on the back foot by saying it could take a decade for the UK to strike a trade deal with the US if it left the EU.
On Monday, the leave camp tried to exploit an admission from the government that EU free movement rules make it harder to limit immigration.
It came after Theresa May, the home secretary, said on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that “free movement makes it harder to control immigration, but it does not make it impossible to control immigration”.
Duncan Smith said a British EU exit was the only way the UK could control immigration, telling Radio 4’s Today programme that the government, which was elected on a platform to reduce immigration, was incapable of delivering that promise because of the EU’s open borders.
Duncan Smith said: “You cannot reject anybody unless you can demonstrate categorically that they pose an immediate threat to the life and livelihood of the UK.
“The reality is that we have to accept people, even criminals. There are a number of cases of people who have got criminal records, then come over here and commit crimes, and we can’t even get rid of them without permission of the European court of justice.
“We would have a policy to have controlled migration, it’s not an end of migration. It means you want people to come in here where there are needs for them – software engineers, engineers generally, skills that are required.”
In response to Obama’s comments, Duncan Smith told Today that no one could know how long it would take for trade deals to be completed. “This is not a major point, nobody knows,” he said. “The president doesn’t know. The president doesn’t know if it takes five or 10 years. It takes as long as both sides want to be able to make it take.
“All of the politicians in Washington told me last week they wanted to do a deal with us and they don’t agree with Mr Obama.”
Duncan Smith said he was hesitant to compare the UK with countries like Norway and Sweden because “we are the fifth largest economy in the world, we have the fourth largest defence capability, we are already a global player”.
He emphasised his belief that leaving the EU would mean that “British people, particularly the poorest, will benefit enormously”, adding: “The pressure on schools, hospitals, housing, caused in many areas by the numbers of migrants coming in from the EU is enormous. It’s not about an anti-migration policy, it’s about getting balance.”
The former Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairssecretary Owen Paterson will also warn that Britain will be become a mere “colony of Europe” if it stays in the EU, with the prime minister reduced to “a Roman governor handing down dictats from what José Manuel Barroso, former president of the European commission, described as the ‘empire’.”
“Most pressingly, if we remain, we will be further dragged into a migration crisis partly of Europe’s making,” Paterson will say. “This is a genuine and legitimate concern, for Germany’s migration policy is now so out of control that in February of this year, federal ministries were estimating that Angela Merkel’s asylum amnesty would have attracted 3.6 million people by 2020. Many of these will, after five years, be able to acquire EU passports and move across Europe and into the UK.”
Monday’s interventions came as London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, hit back after being condemned by both sides in the campaign for his highly personalised attacks on Obama.
Johnson turned his fire on David Cameron, accusing him of achieving nothing in negotiations with Brussels for a special deal for Britain on immigration and other key demands.
In his Daily Telegraph column, Johnson wrote: “The prime minister asked the EU for reform and got two-thirds of diddly-squat. That deal shows how contemptuously we will be treated if we remain.”
However, the pro-EU camp was still buoyed by Obama’s insistence that it would take up to 10 years for a post-Brexit Britain to make a trade deal with Washington.
The remain side also said an admission by leave campaigner and justice minister Dominic Raab that UK citizens could need visas to visit the continent in case of a Brexit highlighted the negative changes such a move would bring.
Meanwhile, Gove insisted potential new members of the EU such as Turkey and Albania posed a direct and serious threat to public services including the NHS, and social harmony. Writing in the Times, he said the health service faced “unquantifiable strain” unless Britain quit the EU.
Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence party, dismissed Obama’s trade deal claim as “rubbish”, pointing out that Australia managed to complete one in two years.
Insisting he had not sought to “scare” Britons, Obama explained his comments by saying that Britain would be at the back of the queue regarding trade talks.
He told the BBC on Sunday: “My simple point is that it’s hard to negotiate trade deals. It takes a long time. We wouldn’t abandon our efforts to negotiate a trade deal with our largest trading partner, the European market, but rather it could be five years from now, 10 years from now, before we were able to actually get something done.”
Duncan Smith backed Johnson over his attack on Obama, although he acknowledged his article describing the US president as “part-Kenyan” may have been “clumsy”.
“He simply referred to some of the reasons why he may have a particular lack of regard for the UK,” Duncan Smith said. “He was trying to illustrate, I think, and you may say it was clumsy, but it was an illustration of the reality that he is the president of the United States, that this president came over to the UK and, in essence – I was quite surprised – ended up what appeared to be lecturing the UK, British citizens, as to what they should do in the forthcoming referendum.”
This article was written by Nadia Khomami, for theguardian.com on Monday 25th April 2016 10.03 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010