A Conservative Cabinet minister was forced to apologise tonight after he claimed that some towns are being “swamped” by immigrants and their residents felt “under siege”.
In a significant toughening of the party’s language on the issue, Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, had echoed provocative comments in the 1970s by Margaret Thatcher.
On Sunday night a Government source said Mr Fallon accepted “he should have chosen his words better” and should have said some communities felt “under pressure”.
The Defence Secretary’s comments came in support of David Cameron, who has demanded radical change on the movement of migrant workers within the EU, but has run into opposition from the German chancellor Angela Merkel.
He said: “The Germans haven’t seen our proposal yet, and we haven’t seen our proposal yet. That is still being worked on at the moment to see what we can do to prevent whole towns and communities being swamped by huge numbers of migrant workers.
“In some areas, particularly on the East coast, yes, towns do feel under siege from large numbers of migrant workers and people claiming benefits. It is quite right that we look at that.”
He told Sky News that the 50-year-old treaty establishing the EU “did not envisage these vast movements of people”.
Margaret Thatcher was accused in 1978 of playing on racial prejudice when she said people feared being “swamped” by Asian immigrants, comments that propelled immigration up the agenda of the following year’s general election.
Mr Cameron’s hopes of significant reform of the EU’s freedom of movement rules – a key promise in his party conference speech this month – were dealt a heavy blow by Ms Merkel. She told the Sunday Times: “Germany will not tamper with the fundamental principles of free movement within the EU.”
Pressure is also piling on Mr Cameron following the disclosure that the European Commission has ordered Britain to pay another £1.7bn by 1 December.
Michael Gove, the Chief Whip, has accused the outgoing Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, of deliberate sabotage.
“The timing, just as the Commission are leaving, is most surprising,” he said.