From U-turn to U-turn: did pro-Brexit politicians mislead the British public?

“In a campaign led by scaremongering and populist paranoia on both sides, it seems that some political elites may have misled the British public over what Brexit means or the implications of such a vote.”


The result of the UK's referendum on EU membership produced a narrow victory for those wanting to leave the European Union, with 52% voting to leave and 48% voting to remain. The stock markets reacted with a mixture of shock and fear, the value of the pound dropped to its lowest level since 1985 in the day after the referendum and global affairs were initially shaken up. Yet domestically, key Brexiters have been unsure of what to do, or are backtracking from their pre-referendum positions.

However, one surprising change of position is that of Gisela Stuart’s sudden concern about protecting the status of EU nationals living in Britain.

Even though the Birmingham Labour MP was one of the key Labour figures supporting Brexit, she now seems concerned about what will happen to EU migrants (it should be noted that Gisela Stuart is herself an EU migrant who moved here from Germany in 1974). It is questionable why the Edgbaston MP did not think of the potential repercussions on migrants living in the UK, before she backed the campaign to Leave. Unsurprisingly, in the weeks after the vote a number of far-right groups and individuals started attacking foreigners, minorities and cultural centres in an unprecedented rise of reported hate crime in the UK.

As Karl Marx once said “Like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by her spells”, Gisela Stuart is to lead a research project looking at how the rights of EU migrants can be protected once the UK leaves the European Union.

However, this seems futile if we do not know what Brexit means. A number of possible scenarios have been floating around, ranging from membership to the European Economic Area (which does not allow restriction on free movement of people as in the EU), membership to the World Trade Organisation, a complete EU exit or even an EU membership with some guarantees on immigration. In addition, Theresa May has refused to declare that the rights of Europeans living in Britain are guaranteed without a reciprocal agreement by the EU. This means that until the British government and the EU reach an agreement, the status of EU nationals currently living in the UK will remain in limbo.

Moreover, politically, Stuart’s late concern about the status and rights of EU nationals living in the UK seems to mark another U-turn on the Brexit agenda. The Labour MP cannot have been oblivious to the fact that a large number of her fellow Brexit proponents were either coming from the far-right, such as UKIP or the Tory nationalist camp, where immigration was perceived as the ‘number one’ issue for Britain. Stuart was either naïve or irresponsible to assume that EU nationals would not be affected by a pro-Brexit result given that immigration was the campaign’s main reason to leave the EU altogether.

Ironically, if one key group should feel betrayed by Gisela Stuart’s sudden interest in safeguarding the rights of EU nationals living in Britain, it should be those who voted to leave the EU. They were led to believe that immigration would be significantly reduced, with some recent EU migrants likely to return home.

In a campaign that was led by scaremongering and populist paranoia on both sides, it seems that some political elites may have misled the British public over what Brexit means or the implications of such a vote. However, there are still a lot of issues that need to be decided and that political mobilisation, as well as campaigning should continue as we move towards Brexit. The post referendum agenda should not be driven by political chameleons that do not have a clear and consistent agenda based on facts and evidence. This issue is too serious to be left to political spin.