Coalition tensions boiled over as the Liberal Democrat Cabinet minister Vince Cable likened Conservative “panic” about Romanian and Bulgarian migration to Enoch Powell’s notorious “rivers of blood” speech.
With less than a fortnight to go until the scrapping of controls over workers from the two countries coming to Britain, the Government’s unity on the issue was stretched close to breaking-point.
Following a series of last-minute measures by David Cameron to deter “benefit tourists”, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg insisted he would block any additional moves to limit migration levels from the European Union.
And Mr Cable mounted a scathing attack on the Conservative attitude to migration, accusing the party of a “panic” on the subject because it was under pressure from the UK Independence Party (Ukip).
The Business Secretary invoked the memory of the 1968 speech in which Powell provoked uproar when he inveighed against levels of non-white migration, an episode which still haunts the Conservative Party nearly half a century later.
“We periodically get these immigration panics in the UK. I remember going back to Enoch Powell and ‘rivers of blood’ and all that. If you go back a century it was panics over Jewish immigrants coming from Eastern Europe,” Mr Cable told BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show.
“The responsibility of politicians in this situation when people are getting anxious is to try to reassure them and give the facts, not panic and resort to populist measures that do harm.”
Mr Cable dismissed claims that tens of thousands of Romanians and Bulgarians would head to Britain next month.
He also delivered a withering verdict on leaked proposals from Theresa May, the Home Secretary, to impose a 75,000 cap on the number of EU nationals allowed to work in Britain each year and warned that a clampdown on student visas would harm foreign relations.
He said an annual limit would be “illegal and impossible to implement” and added: “I think what is happening here [is] the Conservatives are in a bit of a panic because of Ukip reacting in the way they are.
“It’s not going to help them, I think, politically, but it’s doing a great deal of damage.”
Asked if there was a crisis within the Coalition on the subject, Mr Cable replied: “There is quite a lot of tension around this issue.”
In an article on Sunday, Mr Clegg described immigration as “the biggest dividing-line in politics today” and dismissed plans for a cap as arbitrary and pointless.
“Sticking a big no-entry sign on the cliffs of Dover may be politically popular, but at a huge economic cost,” he wrote in the Sunday Times. “What would happen if tonight every European living in the UK boarded a ship or plane and went home?”
Mr Cameron has rushed in several initiatives for clamping down on benefit claims by EU nationals, including a three-month delay before they qualify for state support, as well as plans to deport rough-sleepers and impose a 12-month ban on their return. He has also threatened to veto the admission of new EU members unless new restrictions are imposed on freedom of movement in Europe.
His moves come as feelings run high in Conservative ranks about the lifting of transitional border controls on Romanians and Bulgarians on January 1. More than 70 MPs have called on the Prime Minister to defy EU law and retain the controls for another five years.
In response to Mr Cable’s comments, a Downing Street source said: “Vince is member of the government and supports government policy. The words he chooses to do that are up to him.”
He said the Prime Minister was determined to “put in place more robust transitional controls in future and, in the meantime, to make sure people can come here to work but not just to claim benefits”.
Rosen Plevneliev, the Bulgarian president, on Sunday criticised the fear tactics being used by some politicians and warned the UK could appear isolationist as a result. He said: “Isolating Great Britain and damaging Britain’s reputation is not the right history to write.
Mr Cable took two further swipes at the Conservatives in his interview on Sunday. He warned that the Help to Buy scheme, championed by George Osborne as a way of boosting the housing market, need to be reconsidered.
He also said he was “concerned about the social fabric” of the country if spending cuts continue and the gap between rich and poor widens further.