The Prime Minister, it seems, is migrating from one position on immigration to a very different one.

His headline pledge to reduce immigration became, in the detail, a pledge to reduce net immigration – an aim which not only produces very different outcomes, but is nigh-on impossible when set against economic growth and the EU’s free movement of peoples.

Unable to control immigration from within the EU, the government has tried to chase the target with one hand tied behind its back – clamping down on those coming from the growing parts of the global economy, such as Brazil, India and China, while opening the doors to stricken nations like Greece and Spain.

Aware of that problem, and under pressure from his own MPs to bolster the Conservative offering on the issue, David Cameron took to the FT in November with a fairly radical pitch. Under the headline “Free movement within Europe needs to be less free”, he set out his stall:

  • Britain would implement tougher controls on paying benefits to migrants to ensure people moved to work, not to claim welfare
  • New EU member states would not gain free movement rights automatically based on the passage of time, as at present – instead they should be required “to reach a certain income or economic output per head before full free movement was allowed”
  • Even then, free movement should become a “qualified right” – “Individual member states could be freed to impose a cap if their inflow from the EU reached a certain number in a single year.” 

That last point was particularly drastic; it could be read to suggest that free movement should become a qualified right for people from existing member states as well as new entrants to the EU. That gave the article oomph – otherwise, the proposals are mostly hypothetical until the day eventually comes when another nation might join the EU.

If he was really suggesting a remodelling of the EU’s basic principles for all member states, and hinting that others (particularly the Germans) might agree with him, then

Cameron’s next outing, in the Sunday Telegraph in March, was rather more ambiguous. Rattling through his list of things he wants from the EU renegotiation, he only briefly touched on free movement:

“Support for the continued enlargement of the EU to new members but with new mechanisms in place to prevent vast migrations across the Continent.”

That sent a few eyebrows twitching. The FT article had presented a pick and mix of such mechanisms in some detail – what exactly did this passing reference simply to “new mechanisms” mean? Most importantly, was his intention still to “prevent vast migrations” potentially from existing EU members, or just new entrants?

Today, we may have an answer. Quoted in today’s Telegraph, he retreats from the bullish position he held in November, essentially proposing the reforms to the UK welfare system which are already underway and the possible rule change to restrict immigration from new member states until they reach a certain economic level.

Glaringly absent is the possible right for individual countries to cap immigration from the EU as a whole.

That has three implications.

The first is that he evidently does not believe he can find allies in Berlin or other EU capitals to unpick this fundamental principle of the Union. As many of us predicted, the EU is proving deaf to calls for renegotiation.

The second is that the pledge to reduce immigration is now dead and left in a ditch – as the Coalition’s failure to deliver has shown, under current Brussels rules no UK government can remain a member and control rates of immigration.

The third is that Cameron is limbering up to campaign in the eventual referendum for Britain to stay in the EU. Otherwise, he would be pointing out how wrong it is that Brussels denies us the right to control our borders, and in so doing denies the right of Parliament to make sovereign decisions about our nation’s future.

Each of those is controversial and potentially dangerous for the Prime Minister. His lack of allies abroad will bolster doubts about his ability to secure meaningful change in his already threadbare renegotiation. The death of the immigration pledge will trouble all those who already feel the weakness of the Conservative line on immigration is fuel to UKIP’s fire. His apparent preference for abandoning the pledge rather than going into an all-out battle with Brussels will further dent his personal reputation on a topic which is his kryptonite – today’s Telegraph Leader, for example, implies that the paper thinks he is being dishonest.

None of which is good news for him, his party or the nation. Tomorrow, he will face the Commons Liaison Committee, which will specifically question him on the topic of immigration. After this about-turn, the Conservative committee members may well give him the most trouble.

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