The free movement of peoples is part of the foundation on which the European project was constructed. When I wrote on this site over two years ago that the control of our borders must be top of the repatriation of powers list, I had little expectation either that the Conservative leadership would press for change, or that any of our partners would entertain the prospect for a moment. Yet yesterday we learned that the Home Office wants to cut EU migration by about 30,000 a year, severely restricting the entry of lower skilled workers and constricting that of higher skilled ones. That said, it came as no surprise either that Theresa May supports limiting free movement, since David Cameron has recently said he wants to, or that the Liberal Democrats oppose the Home Office’s view, which was apparently undertaken as part of the Government’s balance of competences review.
Perhaps some northern European countries would support British moves to empower member states to return jobless migrants to their countries of origin, or to clamp down on access to in-work benefits – as Sir Andrew Green has suggested on this site, It may even be that at least some governing parties on the continental mainland, under electoral threat from anti-immigration parties, will eventually have little option but to back restrictions on freedom of movement, and thus Treaty revision: we shall see. But a key point to grasp is that the Prime Minister and Home Secretary’s ideas, welcome though they are, are not the product of abstracted, bloodless calculation. Rather, they are part of a hectic response to events. In only a few days, Romanians and Bulgarians will gain new rights to enter Britain. Yesterday’s stories were undoubtedly part of a Government move to head off public anxiety.
The impact of that concern on Conservative backbenchers, and on the Home Office’s programme, has already been substantial, and continues to grow. Last Friday, the number of Tories who had signed an amendment to the Immigration Bill tabled by Nigel Mills, which seeks to extend the present controls on Romanian and Bulgarian entry, stood at 69. In 2011, 81 Conservatives voted for a referendum on Britain’s EU membership, in defiance of Cameron’s position at the time. The number of Tories backing the Mills amendment is moving towards that totemic figure. The Immigration Bill, which was proceeding briskly though the Commons, has been delayed – and it isn’t clear when proceedings, which would see debate and a vote on the amendment, will be resumed. This impasse raises the question of whether or not the amendment could gain the support of the Commons.
It is worth remembering that Cameron originally opposed John Baron’s amendment to the Queen’s Speech regretting the absence of an EU referendum bill and rushed out his own bill proposing one in consequence (the measure that became the Wharton Bill). The gambit failed: Tory MPs continued to line up behind Baron’s proposal, Downing Street backed off opposing it – and over 100 backbenchers supported it in the lobbies. It goes without saying that the Prime Minister also eventually conceded the EU referendum that he whipped his MPs to oppose. This could only encourage the amendment’s signatories were a vote to take place. But it is very hard indeed to see Cameron, caught between the devil of EU institutional opinion and the deep blue sea of backbench pressure, going along with the latter in this case.
For he would unquestionably look like – no, he would be – the prisoner of his own MPs and, this time round, that fact would have more consequences. Ed Miliband would throw the Tory attacks on him over weakness back in the Prime Minister’s face. Nigel Farage would claim that UKIP was responsible for getting the Cameron to back down. In any event, Nick Clegg would argue that the Mills amendment means leaving the EU (indeed, LibDem “senior sources” are already doing so), and is illegal to boot. Neither MPs nor party members would stand behind the amendment for a moment. (Consider what Vince Cable or Tim Farron would say and do.) It is almost impossible to see how the Coalition could survive were Cameron, for all his enthusiasm for now limiting freedom of movement, suddenly and unexpectedly to act on that desire by backing Mills.
On paper, the Prime Minister could, of course, move to do so. But he would be risking a Miliband premiership as well as ending the Coalition (given fixed term parliaments). In such circumstances, the Labour leadership’s interest in joining the Liberal Democrats to vote the amendment down would be even greater than it is now. Furthermore, the Conservative backbenches still contain a band of Euro-enthusiasts, as Sam Coates’s report in today’s Times (£) reminds us. All in all, it is difficult to see where a Commons majority for the amendment would come from (and easy to see how Tory resignations could happen). And even if were there one in the Commons, there wouldn’t be in the Lords – and the Parliament Act would not be applicable. Long before then, Cameron would have lost control of events, and been seen to. He would be a busted flush.
So, as the clock ticks on towards Christmas and the New Year, can nothing be done to stop the entry of what Sir Andrew has claimed, on this site, could “grow by between 30,000 and 70,000 in each of the first five years, with a central estimate of 50,000”? It all depends on the numbers. As he himself has pointed out, the situation in 2014 will be different from that of 2004. Then, only Ireland and Sweden joined Britain in opening our labour force to the Poles and others. This time, all other EU countries will have done so to the Romanians and Bulgarians by January 1. It may be that nothing much happens. Or it may be that there is a huge influx, and that this becomes evident in the run-up to May’s European elections. In that case, all the political parties will find themselves responding to events. All bets will be off. And the Mills amendment will be back – or something very like it.