It’s been easy to overlook in all the headlines about the coup and blocking a no-deal Brexit, but amidst the chaos the Tories have been forced to make a screeching U-turn on their immigration policy.

The prime minister and his home secretary claimed they would be “ending freedom of movement on day one” of Brexit. But now we find from a ministerial statement, which I expect was timed to avoid news coverage, this is not the policy after all.

In fact, the government will not be ending freedom of movement for at least three years. EU citizens who come here after the Brexit date will be able to enjoy freedom of movement rights for 36 months. This will apply to anyone who comes here before the end of 2020.

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The Tories were simply unable to deliver on their reactionary promise. They did not care about the terrible impact that abolishing freedom of movement will have on recruiting to our public services, especially the NHS, as well as the effects on our businesses and our universities. After all, this is the prime minister who famously said, “F*** business”. 

But they did have to take account of the law. And there is no law which has been passed by parliament to remove freedom of movement. Unless and until that happens – and Labour and other opposition parties have voted repeatedly against the Tories’ Immigration Bill – the current law stands, which is to allow EU citizens their treaty rights.  

The Tories never had anything in place that would supersede those rights, either legally or practically. And the practical effect of removing these rights is not just devastating to the many people involved, but is a gigantic act of self-harm. As my colleague John McDonnell said in another context, this government offers a unique combination of right-wing extremism and bumbling incompetence.

We should be clear that we have all benefited from freedom of movement. It has helped to recruit to our chronically understaffed NHS and other public services, and workers with all types of skills have contributed to our economy as well as to our cultural and social life. The public finances have been boosted. It is often forgotten that many immigrants create jobs themselves by establishing or expanding businesses.

What is certain is that we should do nothing which makes us worse off. Clearly, that means opposing a no-deal Brexit. But it also means honouring the commitments we have already made to all the EU citizens who have come here. And not making any changes to our immigration system that will make them or us worse off.

This is not the approach of this government. It will continue to make false, unworkable promises on curbing immigration. The aim is not to deliver on the promises, any more than the promise to cut net migration to under 100,000 annually has ever been met. It is instead to permanently rail against foreigners and migrants.

We are told that the government intends to run a grotesque racist, xenophobic election campaign, which they insultingly call a “northern strategy”, as if all northerners share the Tories’ racism.

They don’t. We will fight this obvious scapegoating, which is only trying to avoid responsibility for a crisis of the Tories’ own making. And we will win, by matching unity and prosperity against division and racism. 

We need a government that rejects this ugly division. We need a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn.

Diane Abbott is shadow home secretary and MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington

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