David Cameron rose to the challenge of another essay crisis, but his speech on Friday changed little. It was a clever, balanced piece of work. It did the old Tony Blair trick of setting out two extreme positions and then making the audience feel sensible by offering a third way. On the one hand, there are people who dislike foreigners and who want to pull out of the European Union. Boo, hiss, horrid Ukip. On the other, there are people who think immigration is wonderful and so is the EU. Boo, hiss, liberal elitists.
Then there is the middle position, celebrating our "open nation" but worried about the scale of change over the past decade; not liking the EU much but thinking its faults can be fixed. Hurrah for David Cameron, who has promised to fix them.
It was brave, though, to deliver the speech in the week that net immigration went above the level inherited from the Labour government. Having promised when he became Prime Minister to get net immigration below 100,000 a year, it is now running at 260,000 a year. The gist of what Cameron said to JCB workers in Staffordshire was: "I broke my promise before, but this time I really mean it." It is a tough message for a politician to sell at the best of times.
He did the best he could, and Cameron's best is pretty good, but all he could say was: "When I made that commitment I didn't know that the eurozone was going to be potentially having three recessions." That wasn't even in the speech, but in reply to journalists' questions afterwards.
Much of the speech was honest about the difficulties of managing immigration. "Our squeeze in one area has been offset by a bulge in another." He was right to point out that it is a problem in all rich countries. It would still be hard to control if Britain were outside the EU. Immigration is a problem in Norway and Switzerland, which are not in the EU, but to which the free movement of EU workers still applies. Even if Britain opted out of free movement rules, it would be hard. It is a problem in the United States, where a lot of the arguments over Barack Obama's partial amnesty sound just like the debate in this country, and in Australia, where net immigration is higher, pro rata, than the UK.
The changes that Cameron proposes are significant. The requirement to have a job to go to, rather than allowing people from other EU countries to come to Britain to look for work, would probably deter many. The Office for National Statistics says that 40 per cent of immigrant workers (from the EU and elsewhere) do not have a job offer when they arrive. The four-year wait for benefits would also make a difference, not because "benefit tourism" is a problem but because in-work benefits, such as tax credits and housing benefit, are big subsidies that boost the level of take-home wages.
The bravest part of the speech, though, was that, contrary to Labour's claims, it yielded nothing to Ukip and the hard-core Better Off Outers in the Tory party (of whom there are surprisingly few). The centre ground of public opinion doesn't like the EU much, but would rather stay in if (unspecified) changes are made. Cameron has decided that the best thing to do with the kippers is to smoke them.
It was notable that most of the pro-European press welcomed the speech, whereas the antis seemed uncertain and confused. The pros have read it right: Cameron has pitched for modest reforms that he knows he can deliver because he cleared them with Angela Merkel and the Poles beforehand. So sensible are Cameron's reforms that both Labour and the even more pro-European Lib Dems agree with them. It was Rachel Reeves and Yvette Cooper, for instance, who this month proposed a two-year wait for in-work benefits.
The only sliver of kipper that Cameron offered the Better Off Outers was to say, again in answer to a question after the speech: "Yes, these changes, taken together, will require some treaty change." That sounds like a big deal, because it would require ratification by all 27 other countries. The chance of that happening by the time of a UK referendum in 2017 seems remote.
In fact, the only thing that definitely needs treaty change is the new rule for countries joining the EU, to delay free movement until their economies catch up. Everyone agrees with that, and there is no rush, because no new members will join for five years. Perhaps Cameron hoped his anti-EU backbenchers would think his reforms are more dramatic than they are.
The essay-crisis Prime Minister has done enough to get him through the next six months. He has not bought off the Ukip threat, but he has done what he can to contain it by occupying the true centre ground of public opinion, which is sceptical about the EU in the true sense of the word, but which would think twice or even three times before wanting to get out.Reuse content