Author: John Crace
Be careful what you wish for. Midway through an urgent question on the government’s policy on EU nationals, the Conservative Rebecca Pow demanded both that freedom of movement should end and that Britain should remain “open to the brightest and the best”. Something that would immediately disqualify both Pow and Caroline Nokes, the immigration minister to whom her question was addressed, from the House of Commons. Not even their closest friends would describe Pow or Nokes as the brightest or the best. Or sentient or barely adequate.
In her appearance before the home affairs select committee last week, Nokes managed to make up government policy on the spot by claiming that it would be up to employers to make additional checks on a worker’s status based totally on guesswork. Within hours, Sajid Javid, the home secretary, was forced to make a correction. He had never wanted Nokes as part of his team – he wasn’t picky, but he did have standards – and he couldn’t be held responsible for whatever nonsense came out of her mouth. In future it would be best for everyone to ignore whatever she said and come straight to him for clarification.
A kinder boss might have taken the hit for a clueless member of staff, but Javid had clearly decided enough was enough. There were limits to his largesse. Nokes had broken it, she could fix it. So even though he was tabled to answer the UQ, he had found himself tied up Googling “Sajid + future prime minister” on his work computer, and it was Nokes herself who was left to demonstrate why she had been promoted well beyond her capability. You can understand Javid’s frustration, but it’s not a great look to openly display the paucity of talent on the government’s benches.
Even someone as intellectually challenged as Chris Grayling might have worked out that the best plan was to fess up. Apologise for the error, eat humble pie and live to fight another day. But there is so little connection between Nokes’s synapses that she genuinely appeared to have no idea why she had been made to come to the Commons. Far from being contrite, she appeared snappy and disdainful of anyone who dared to ask her a question. An object lesson in passive-aggressive mediocrity.
Everything was fine, Nokes declared. What’s more, everything was going to be fine, and if everything turned out not to be fine then the government would definitely have a plan to make it not not fine. Labour’s Yvette Cooper, the chair of the home affairs select committee, was unsurprisingly not reassured by this display of uncontrolled ignorance. She wanted confirmation that the information the minister had previously given was incorrect and what the process for determining the rights of EU citizens to live and work in the UK post-Brexit would be.
Computer said no. Nokes was happy to clarify that there was nothing to clarify. The home affairs select committee must have misheard her last week. Her position was the same as it had always been: that there would be no need for employers to make additional checks until such time as the government decided there would be a need for additional checks. But for the time being, take it as read that all EU nationals would be treated as they were now up until June 2021.
Now it was Hilary Benn’s turn to be confused. So did this mean that free movement of labour would effectively continue for a minimum of three more years? Absolutely not, Nokes sneered. What bit of the government’s commitment to ending freedom of labour hadn’t he understood? Just because EU nationals were being allowed to stay, it didn’t follow that they were being allowed to stay. She was committed to making settled status as unsettled as possible and the government would be announcing its immigration policy soon.
“How soon was soon?” several MPs asked. Very soon. How soon was very soon? A couple of weeks. Maybe more. Who could possibly say? “So,” Nokes declared testily, “the home secretary has promised a white paper in the autumn.” At which point someone observed it was already November. Yeah, but no, but yeah, but she’d never never said which November.
It all became very ugly. Labour’s Karen Buck started talking numbers. There were 3.5 million EU nationals in the UK, of whom only 1,000 had been given settled status so far. Nokes defiantly insisted that this illustrated how well advanced her department’s preparations were and at this current rate of progress the backlog would be cleared by 2050. Or earlier if some of the 3.5 million had the grace to die in between.
Had the Speaker been feeling kind, he would have brought Nokes’s pain to a close somewhat earlier. But John Bercow had a vested interest in delaying the debate on bullying for as long as possible in the hope that it would get little media attention. So Nokes was forced to suffer. The only consolation was that she was almost certainly too dim to realise just how badly she had humiliated herself.