Eighteen months ago Gordon Brown promised British jobs for British workers – a slogan we learnt had also been used by the BNP.  Yesterday that phrase was used in anger against him as British workers saw 400 largely Italian employees of an Italian contractor recruited to build an extension to the Lindsay Oil Refinery in Lincolnshire.  The Sun identifies fourteen wildcat strikes in support of action taken by Lindsay’s British workers.

Billy Bones (a great name that could have come from the 1970s) – a pipefitter at the Lindsey refinery and union official – told the FT: “I would not be surprised if by Monday afternoon the whole construction industry nationwide is out. We’ve got our backs against the wall.  This has been brewing for years. We have the skills to do the jobs but are not getting them.”

Yesterday in Davos, David Cameron was quick to criticise Gordon Brown for using the British workers phrase:

"There are legitimate questions to be asked of this company.  If it is disqualifying British workers from applying for jobs, then that is illegal. But the Prime Minister should never have used that slogan. On the one hand he lectures everyone about globalisation and on the other he borrows this slogan from the BNP. He has been taking people for fools and has been found out."

Labour’s double failure to (1) control immigration from outside the EU and (2) to reskill British workers during better times means that there are no easy solutions to this crisis.  EU law protects the right of nationals from member states to work here.  Over at CentreRight, Peter Whittle believes that we should strongly support the protestors.  It’s a temptation but one we should resist.  Conservatives should not tolerate illegal strikes and, more strategically, we should argue for the long-term benefits of open markets even when they conflict with immediate British interests.  That will often be a very tough argument to make but there will be many other times when UK workers – not least in the financial services sector – benefit from our free access to other markets.

The bigger message we need to get across – at a time when Barack Obama is making protectionist noises – is that a retreat from free trade is the surest way to turn today’s recession into tomorrow’s depression.  Some Tory talk of buying locally is close to a form of economic isolationism.

Tim Montgomerie