When farmers, business leaders and politicians met in north Wales to discuss what Brexit meant for their community, there was barely any mention of immigration – the very issue that dominated the referendum campaign across Britain.
One man did stand up to air his worries over the unfettered movement of migrants from the rest of Europe which he blamed for losing his job. But the others responded by simply rolling their eyes and quickly moving on to the next point.
Most of those assembled by a British parliamentary committee in a cinema in the seaside town of Prestatyn had come to discuss their concerns about their future outside the European Union, not to revisit the arguments that led to Britain’s vote in June to leave the bloc.
Their response is part of a trend emerging across the country, according to opinion polls, with the immigration fears that loomed so large before the referendum being overtaken by concerns over what Brexit will mean for everyday life.
In the monthly Ipsos MORI/Economist Issues Index, which asks about 1,000 people across the country “What are the most important issues facing Britain”, the EU and the terms of Britain’s exit led at 39 percent in November – above immigration on 35 percent.
A month earlier, immigration was at 36 percent, with the EU and Brexit at 32 percent, while in June – during the run-up to the vote – immigration was at 48 percent with the EU at 32.
This shift in public concerns could offer some respite to Prime Minister Theresa May as she prepares for negotiations on Britain’s exit from the 28-nation bloc.
She has been under immense pressure to curb free movement of people from Europe to Britain but will face fierce opposition from Brussels negotiators as she seeks at the same time to retain access to the bloc’s trade and financial markets.
Should the talks boil down to a trade-off between accepting a degree of movement of people from the EU in return for preferential access to the single market, as widely expected, any relaxation of public pressure on immigration could help free the government’s hand at the negotiating table.
Gideon Skinner, research director at Ipsos MORI, told Reuters it was still too early to say whether fears about how Britain will manage outside the EU will continue to stay high as “concern about immigration will be partly dependent on the outcomes of the Brexit negotiations”.
But he added: “It is certainly the case that concern about Brexit has increased significantly from the beginning of this year.”
Poverty, and frustration with a distant political and financial elite in London and Brussels, drove many in Wales to vote to leave the EU. For most of the 45 people meeting in Prestatyn this month, sitting before whiteboards and listing their priorities for a future outside the bloc, the most pressing concern was money.
They wanted to know whether EU funding, or subsidies, which they say have helped transform Wales and are vital to one of the poorest regions in the bloc, will be matched by the government.
“They (pro-Brexit campaigners) said subsidies would go up, but that’s all up in the air again,” said Peter Morton, a local city councillor, to nervous laughter.
Harold Martin, a radio station director, said he welcomed the visit by the Welsh Affairs parliamentary committee aimed at helping advise the government on Brexit – because locals needed to make sure they were “not stuck at the bottom of the pile”.
They said they wanted to see more training and investment in an area where a clear majority voted to quit the EU.
The prime minister has signalled she will prioritise border controls as she prepares for some of the most complicated negotiations Britain has entered into since World War Two.
But she knows how difficult it is to rein in immigration; in her previous job as interior minister, she was responsible for fulfilling the ruling Conservatives’ pledge to reduce net annual migration to under 100,000, but failed to make an impact.
Net migration from the EU alone reached a new record of 189,000 in the 12 months running up to the June 23 referendum.
May has already shown some flexibility since the Brexit vote by offering India a possible improved visa deal to spur talks on trade with its market of 1.3 billion people, and may be forced to offer the EU special rules on migration to meet her goal for business to “trade with, and operate within” the single market.
She has ruled out an Australian-style points-based system to control immigration and this month finance minister Philip Hammond said Britain would not cut off the supply of skilled staff to the country.
Hannah White, research director for think-tank the Institute for Government, said the current tiered visa scheme for non-EU migrants would most likely be extended to EU citizens, putting “a greater burden of administration on employers”.
A spokesman for the Home Office, Britain’s interior ministry, said: “We are about to begin negotiations and it would be wrong to set out our positions in advance.”
One Conservative lawmaker, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said immigration levels were not going fall dramatically after Brexit and that the government would have to sell relatively small falls to voters.
“Politically it just has to feel different from free movement,” the lawmaker said.
(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Pravin Char)