Tony Blair has admitted that immigration rules must be made tougher – but insisted that can be done without leaving the EU.
The former prime minister, who oversaw a surge in arrivals from newer states in the bloc, conceded that ‘sentiment’ had changed about open borders.
He has put his name to a report calling for tighter controls, while arguing that ‘grievances’ about free movement rules can be dealt with inside EU.
The intervention, on the eve of key votes in parliament on the EU Withdrawal Bill, amounts to a bid by Remainers to neutralise the immigration issue in the Brexit debate.
But Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon dismissed the prospect of revisiting the referendum decision, insisting the British public had spoken.
Tony Blair, who oversaw a surge in arrivals from newer states in the bloc, has conceded that ‘sentiment’ has changed about open borders. The ex-PM is pictured on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show today
Mr Blair told the BBC that the British public should be given options for how the shape of our future relationship with the EU will look
Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon dismissed the prospect of revisiting the referendum decision, insisting the British public had spoken
Theresa May has made control of inflows a red line in talks with Brussels, saying there is no possibility of cutting numbers from the EU unless we leave the single market.
But in an article for the Sunday Times website, Mr Blair said: ‘There is no diversion possible from Brexit without addressing the grievances which gave rise to it.
‘Paradoxically, we have to respect the referendum vote to change it.’
He went on: ‘We can curtail the things that people feel are damaging about European immigration, both by domestic policy change and by agreeing change within Europe.
‘This is precisely the territory the Labour Party should camp upon.’
Mr Blair has been widely blamed for the rise in public anxiety over immigration, after he failed to impose transitional controls on migrants from new EU member states in 2004.
Urging MPs to put forward a ‘different or better way’ to deal with the issues instead of leaving the EU, Mr Blair told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show: ‘I’m trying to say this – in the end Brexit is a distraction not a solution to the problems this country faces.
GIVE UP ON STAYING IN THE EU, SAYS ARCH-EUROPHILE CLARKE
Ken Clarke has said it is ‘hopeless’ to expect the UK to stay in the EU
A leading Tory Europhile has urged his colleagues to give up on staying in the EU.
Former cabinet minister Ken Clarke said it is ‘hopeless’ to expect the UK to remain in the bloc.
He told Sky News’s Sunday with Niall Paterson: ‘Tony (Blair) still thinks we can stay in the EU.
‘I think the mood in the country is it’s hopeless to expect that. What we now need to address is the practical consequences of what is our new relationship.’
But Mr Clarke insisted it was crucial for the country to get the best possible access to the EU market.
He said it was impossible to see a full agreement being struck by 2019, and a transition period of ‘two, three, four years’ will be needed.
‘If Members of Parliament really believe that then their obligation is to set out solutions that deal with the actual problems communities and people have and not do Brexit which is actually going to distract us from those solutions and going to cause real economic and political damage.’
The ex-PM warned that the only way of making a success of leaving the EU was by aggressively lowering taxes and regulation.
But he said any attempt to do that could lead to a lurch to the Left, and cause enormous damage to the UK.
‘The risk is the British people won’t vote for that, they are not going to vote for the huge economic and social restructuring – to the changes to the health service and other things that that would require,’ he said.
‘And the risk is actually that we have a Brexit followed by, I’m afraid, an unreconstructed leftist programme from Labour, and if you combine those two things together in my view we will be in a very serious situation as a country.’
But Sir Michael dismissed Mr Blair’s comments, and insisted he needed to ‘get over’ the result of the referendum.
‘It’s a bit late now this epiphany, I’m not sure where he’s been – well we know where he’s been, he’s being travelling the world,’ he said.
‘The country wants proper controls over immigration, we saw that in election after election and we saw that in the referendum last year.
‘The country has taken it’s decision, we’re leaving the European Union now, and that means freedom of movement has to end whether we like it or not.’
He added: ‘The country has decided we’re leaving the European Union, we’ve got to get on with that, Tony Blair has got to get over it, and we’ve got to get a smooth and successful exit from the union.’
But Mr Blair said ‘back then the economy was strong, the workers were needed’, adding: ‘The times were different; the sentiment was different; and intelligent politics takes account of such change.’
Brexit voters’ concerns about ‘pressure on services’, ‘downward pressure on wages’ and ‘cultural integration’ now ‘cannot be ignored’, he said.
According to the newspaper, a report from the Tony Blair Institute, authored by former Downing Street policy expert Harvey Redgrave, urges the Government to force EU immigrants to register on arriving in the UK so authorities can check whether they go on to work or study.
It also proposes that EU nationals are made to show evidence of a job offer that is confirmed by their employer before they enter Britain.
There would be a ban on renting a home, opening a bank account, or accessing benefits without permission.
EU immigrants’ access to free NHS care if they are ‘economically inactive’, and universities would be able to charge EU nationals higher tuition fees than British students.
Theresa May, pictured in Downing Street last week, has made control of inflows a red line in talks with Brussels
The report also suggests trying to negotiate a change in free movement rules to introduce an ’emergency brake’ on people coming into Britain when public services are overstretched.
However, David Cameron attempted a similar change and failed to secure it when renegotiating the UK’s EU membership ahead of the referendum.
Mr Blair added: ‘If we go ahead with Brexit, we will have taken the unprecedented decision for a major country to relegate ourselves, like a top-six Premiership side deciding to play exclusively in the Championship.
‘Other than President (Donald) Trump, I can’t think of a single leader of any of our major allies or partners who thinks this decision is anything other than self-harming.’
Tory grandee Lord Heseltine also suggested the EU could be open to reform of free movement after the German election this month, while criticising ‘damaging’ proposals revealed in a leaked Home Office document this week.
The peer said immigration as an issue was a ‘low hanging fruit’ for politicians, who blame it for pressure on public services despite its contribution to the economy in an effort to win over voters.
Addressing the Home Office plans in the Mail on Sunday, he wrote: ‘Free movement of labour would end immediately and all but the most highly skilled EU workers deterred from coming to this country.
‘I fear the very social fabric of our caring society, health services and swathes of the public sector which depend on immigrant support could be destroyed if this happens.
‘There have to be controls on immigration across Europe.
‘Free movement is under question and we should join a discussion that could follow on from the German elections.’
David Cameron tried and failed to negotiate curbs to freedom of movement rules within the EU before the historic referendum last year