Cameron's speech was an attempt to kill immigration as an election issue

Inside Westminster

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The Independent Online

As Conservative Eurosceptics digested David Cameron’s long-awaited speech on immigration, they had a familiar sense of disappointment and anti-climax.

Their hopes had been raised by recent headlines suggesting the Prime Minister would propose a cap or quota on EU migration to Britain.

These reports were encouraged by some Cabinet ministers and Downing Street, before it belatedly tried to apply an emergency brake to the speculation. Cameron started it: only eight weeks ago, he made a dramatic promise to the British people when he addressed the Tory conference. Deliberately looking the TV cameras in the eye, he said on EU migration: “It will be at the very heart of my renegotiation strategy for Europe. Britain, I know you want this sorted so I will go to Brussels, I will not take no for an answer and when it comes to free movement – I will get what Britain needs.”

Yesterday, he abandoned his attempt to smash the EU’s tablet of stone on the free movement of people after running into strong opposition in other EU capitals. He tried to mask his retreat by promising yet another crackdown – a four-year wait for EU migrants before they can claim in-work benefits such as tax credits.

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The PM said his package would “reduce significantly EU migration.” (Reuters)

Cue more “Cameron gets tough” headlines in Tory-supporting newspapers yesterday after a Downing Street spin operation. In fact, the Prime Minister’s speech was much more balanced than the advance billing suggested. He spoke about the benefits of both immigration and EU membership, showing he has learnt from at least some of his previous mistakes.

By focusing on in-work benefits, he dropped the Tory canard that the big problem is EU migrants coming to the  UK to claim benefits. As his critics have long pointed out, the vast majority come here to work.

Cameron had listened to Foreign Office advice: there was no point in making an impossible demand on free movement, but there is an appetite in several other EU nations for benefit reforms. Yet it won’t be easy to get the new European treaty he acknowledged would be needed.

Some countries would have to hold a referendum on it, and their leaders would be wary in the anti-politics age of staging what would become a vote of confidence  in themselves. I doubt very much that a  new treaty could be a done deal before  the in/out referendum Cameron has promised in 2017 – not least because Germany and France have general elections in that year.

 

Cameron also bowed to Foreign Office advice not to demand a special deal for Britain, which would have gone down like a lead balloon in Brussels. Instead, he argued that his proposals would be good for the 28-nation bloc. He did not put a gun to the EU’s head by threatening to recommend withdrawal in the referendum if his demands are not met. There was an implied threat but it was not as strong as Conservative Eurosceptics had hoped;  pro-Europeans judged that he had  stepped back from the brink of “Brexit” (British exit).

Cameron has also been listening to George Osborne, who is worried about fears in the business community that the Tories’ EU strategy has put the UK on a slippery slope to “Brexit.” Perhaps the Prime Minister got the message when he spoke at the CBI conference earlier this month. Ed Miliband got a better reception than he did  after promising never to put Britain’s place in the EU at risk. Hence Cameron’s statement yesterday that he wanted to get a deal that would allow the country to stay in.

His attack on Ukip was strong but,  unlike Miliband in his “fightback speech” this month, Cameron did not summon up the courage to name Nigel Farage or his party. Presumably, he did not want to offend the Tory supporters who have gone over to Ukip.

Inevitably, Tory Eurosceptics who chose to believe the hype in recent weeks felt let down. “He has done his Grand Old Duke of York act yet again,” one complained. The good news for Cameron is that, with an election coming, many Tory Eurpohobes will moan about his EU strategy in private rather than public. “We don’t like it, but we have to realise that divided parties cost votes,” one senior backbencher said.  “MPs with marginal seats are saying that  we cannot afford to be talking to ourselves on Europe.”

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Cameron delivered his speech at a factory in Staffordshire (PA)

Cameron allies pointed out that the Eurosceptics will never be satisfied. As one adviser put it: “If they say they are happy,  it begs the question – what is the point of them?” Yesterday’s speech was not designed to make immigration a big issue at next May’s general election. In fact, the aim was the very opposite.

In private, Cameron speaks of “getting the boulder [immigration] off the road” so the Conservatives can focus on the economy, which they regard as their trump card and Labour’s Achilles heel. The timing of The Great Speech was dictated by the Chancellor’s autumn statement next Wednesday, which will put the economy centre stage. It was also timed to eclipse embarrassing figures on Thursday showing that net migration had risen to 260,000, reminding voters of the Tories’ target to reduce it to under 100,000 by next year.

Significantly, the Prime Minister declined to play a numbers game yesterday, saying only that his package would “reduce significantly EU migration.” But the damage has been done. By missing the target he set in 2010, Cameron has made his task of convincing a sceptical British public on this issue much harder. His broken promise, for which he refused to apologise, will return to haunt him and plays into Ukip’s hands. “I’m a politician, trust me” doesn’t work any more.

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