Cabinet tensions over immigration policy have delayed an announcement on how to handle the thousands of migrants expected to head to Britain when the European Union expands in May.
As Tony Blair and David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, sent out conflicting signals on the issue, Michael Howard ridiculed the Government's "total confusion" about immigration from new entrants. During heated exchanges with the Tory leader, Tony Blair left open the possibility that citizens of the new EU member states could be banned from working in Britain. He is understood to be privately supported by Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary.
By contrast, Mr Blunkett has insisted there was no prospect of following Germany, France and Italy and preventing people from "accession states" from working legally in this country.
The mixed messages highlighted an apparent Cabinet rift over the highly sensitive subject. A Government announcement was expected today on measures - including restrictions to benefit entitlement - to prevent a rush of migrants heading for Britain.
But it has been postponed to enable further discussions between Mr Blair, Mr Blunkett and Andrew Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.
The Prime Minister said the free movement of workers to Britain from 1 May would only be granted if it was certain it could not be abused.
His comments echoed his remarks a week earlier, which were modified immediately afterwards by Downing Street and apparently contradicted by Mr Blunkett several days later.
Mr Howard, seizing on the controversy for the second week running in Prime Minister's Question Time, said: "So will you now give us a clear answer. Will you impose controls on immigration from the accession countries or not?"
Mr Blair replied: "Free movement of workers, was a concession we are prepared to grant, but not in circumstances where it can be abused."
Ministers have been taken aback by the decision of several countries to impose last-minute controls and by the ferocity of warnings in some newspapers that Britain will be inundated with east European migrants, including poverty-stricken Gypsies from Slovakia.
They are also aware that "accession day" fallsbefore the European elections in June, when Labour is braced for grim results. Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "With only months before the accession countries join the Government's policy is a complete shambles."Reuse content