The Prime Minister carried over some of his election campaign techniques to this morning’s speech on immigration. Like one of those factory events where he spoke to an audience of workers, the staff of the Home Office were assembled to watch him and the Home Secretary present their new plan. Here are a few observations:
- Tackling illegal immigration is important, but completely separate to the main issue at hand. A lot of the new proposals – criminalising working illegally, new bank checks on possible illegal migrants, an extension of “deport first, appeal later” and a new agency to enforce labour laws – are perfectly worthwhile but rather separate to the main point. Everyone wants any government to tackle illegal immigration, and I hope that this one does. However, we shouldn’t really bundle these measures in with the question of how to control migration more generally. Today’s figures reveal the number of perfectly legal migrants coming into the UK – illegal immigration isn’t counted for obvious reasons, so even huge success on this front wouldn’t have any impact on the main issue.
- Net migration is still the wrong measure. I ask again, as we’ve asked here before, if anyone really believes that the electorate’s primary issue with immigration is the total number of people in the country, or something more subtle? If 10 million people left the country and 10.01 million arrived, that would be an improvement in terms of net migration, but it clearly wouldn’t be viewed by the populace as a success.
- Worse, it’s an uncontrollable measure. Currently the Government has insufficient control of the number of people arriving – but it can never have any real control of the other half of its chosen equation, the number of Brits either staying or leaving.
- Success on growth directly clashes with attempts to reduce net migration. When your two headline goals are a) secure speedy improvements in the UK economy, outstripping our neighbours and competitors and b) reducing net migration, you have the obvious problem that the two are in clear conflict. If you fix the economy then at minimum more British people are likely to stay (or return, in the case of expats), making the net migration target harder to achieve even before you factor in the effects of free movement of people. Cameron’s comment that he now wants to make the UK a “less attractive place to come and work” is amusingly close to Al Murray’s FUKP manifesto, which read: “The reason they are coming here is because this is the greatest country in the world. The only way to stop them is for a government to change that and make things a whole lot worse”.
- You still can’t control immigration while remaining a member of the EU. The Prime Minister’s lines on EU renegotiation are clear enough, and mostly focus on reducing “pull factors” like welfare subsidies for migrants in low-paid work, benefits for migrants who come to Britain but don’t find jobs and absurdities like Child Benefit being paid for children who don’t even live in the UK. I don’t disagree with any of them, but they do fall short on three measures. First, unless they’re cemented by treaty change then they can’t be protected from erosion by the ECJ. Second, free movement of labour will it seems remain - and, as the main pull factor is economic growth not welfare, it’s hard to see the in-flow reducing in any sizeable way. Third, we still haven’t heard what happens if the EU just says “No” to these proposals (which is perfectly possible – the Polish government don’t like losing their workers, for example, but nor do they want to see the handy inward payment of Child Benefit stopped) – without the sanction of him then recommending an Out vote, why should they agree?
- He’s now taking responsibility for the target – and therefore full blame if things continue to go wrong. The Prime Minister is no doubt correct to say that his former coalition partners, and particularly Vince Cable, were obstacles to tougher measures on immigration. This is clearly an agreed line – the Home Secretary made the same point while introducing him. It may well be that a majority Conservative government can be “tougher, fairer and faster” on immigration, and it is a plausible reason to argue that things might be different this term. But laying the blame for past failures at the Lib Dems’ door also means that he is now fully in the line of fire if this new government fails on its own measures. Indeed, he’s doubled down by placing himself at the head of the new Immigration Task Force. It’s make or break – a bold strategy, but one which leaves him more exposed, particularly when one considers all the difficulties laid out above.