The ConservativeHome manifesto proposes that new immigrants be required to purchase their own health and welfare cover through a system of social insurance (to which their employers would also contribute), and that their full access to public services, benefits and tax credits be earned. There would be a points-based system to prioritise the immigration of workers with skills in short supply. In order to implement this policy, Britain should regain full control of its borders, either through a renegotiation with the European Union or by withdrawing from it altogether.
It follows that we would welcome a commitment by David Cameron to such a programme. Downing Street now seems to be pondering elements of it. Some reports claim that the Prime Minister wants to cap the number of National Insurance numbers given to migrants with low skills; others, that he is mulling a bar on EU migrants who can’t support themselves; still others, an emergency brake. He will apparently set out his view in a speech soon, but this leaves speculation to run riot in the meantime. Why can’t he decide and have done with it?
The answer can be unearthed in the Bloomberg speech that promised an in/out referendum and a renegotiation. It was straightforward about the former: this would take place “within the first half of the next parliament”. It was much less clear about the latter. Some flesh has been put on the bones since: we know that Cameron’s priorities for a renegotiation include more free trade, less red tape, more power to national parliaments, the police and justice systems “unencumbered by unnecessary interference”. (Does this really square with the European Arrest Warrant?)
The Prime Minister also wrote that there should be “free movement…not free benefits”, and that there should be “new mechanisms in place to prevent vast migrations across the Continent”. Did this mean migration from new EU entrants only or from present members too? Mark Wallace did a thorough job on this site in May of tracking all the back-and-forths. A month later, when Cameron addressed the 1922 Committee in the aftermath of the Conservative by-election win at Newark, there was no hint of any push to restrict free movement.
So what’s changed? Number Ten says that as Britain’s economy continues to boom and the Eurozone’s carries on stagnating some new restrictions may be needed. This explanation is the truth, but not the whole truth. The latter has far more to do with Rochester and Strood. Downing Street is in a state of rampant funk about losing the by-election, more defections to UKIP, and even, perhaps, a leadership challenge. So it has come round to the view that something must be done about EU immigration – which is why there are so many somethings being floated.
In short, Cameron is paying for penalty not for hesitating to set out his renegotiation priorities – which he has – but for failing to say what his bottom line is. It is true that no Prime Minister can reveal his full negotiating hand in advance. But he can at least pledge to walk away from the table if he believes the game to be unwinnable. That Cameron hasn’t done so to date helps to explain why his hints and actions – new restrictions on in-work benefits followed the entry of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants to Britain earlier this year – have gained so little political traction.
As I say, this site would welcome commitments from the Prime Minister along the lines of those set out in our manifesto. And the sooner these are made, the better: their absence is leaving a void for speculation to fill. But those Conservative MPs and activists who believe that new Cameron commitments on immigration and an election focus on the issue would open up a big poll lead over Labour, send UKIP plummeting back down to low single figures, and save their marginal seats next May should think again.
Yes, the Prime Minister could bang on and on, as he would put it, about immigration from now until polling day. He could gamble on voters believing that he has had a real change of heart, and that stopping immigrants from entering Britain is the heartfelt mission of this self-proclaimed “liberal conservative”. He could take a punt on them thinking that there will be a majority Conservative Government to do it. He could tear up his plan, so deliberately propagated during the recent Party Conference, to campaign on the economy and security.
Or he could stick to his last, and present new plans for EU immigration control as part of a balanced whole. He could argue that the economy is recovering (despite Labour’s predictions to the contrary) and point to the achievements of his team: to Michael Gove’s academies; to Theresa May’s policing reforms; to Chris Grayling’s work on rehabilitation; to Francis Maude’s Whitehall shake-up; to Iain Duncan Smith’s tackling of the dependency culture – all done at a time of austerity with no fall in the standard of public services and without mass strikes: in short, to grown-up government.
Which do you think sounds more likely to convince the voters? We have been here before. In 2001 and 2005, Conservative election campaigns threw the dice on the lessons of evidence and experience being wrong – these being that the mass of voters distrust politicians’ willingness to do anything much about mass immigration almost as much as they dislike it. Were Cameron to try it on again, he would be – to use the phrase he applied to Gordon Brown – treating the voters like fools. Not to mention starting a urination contest, to put it politely, with the UKIP skunk.