Tory plans to cut benefits to EU immigrants expose widening ideological divide in our politics

Labour want to boost the economy through spending, the Conservatives prefer to cut

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As exclusively revealed in the Independent, the Conservatives want to limit the access to legal aid, healthcare and housing for other EU nationals. Such an idea will ring bells in middle Britain. The country is in dire financial straits – spending far more than it can ever possibly earn and cutting the welfare bill is a given, considering that the NHS retains its protected financial status within government.

In the past, though, such a popularist measure would have met with hoots of derision from much of  the political class on the grounds that our legal commitment to the EU and the freedom of movement of individuals would make such a move as to bar EU nationals from certain services very difficult to maintain under legal challenge. 

However, the first tranche of changes planned by the Conservatives are in areas – housing, medical care and legal aid – where in effect restrictions being imposed mirror those of other EU members such as France. It’s a test of public opinion and a taster of things to come.

Longer term it’s the benefits bill that the Tories have in mind.  And this is where their plans to hold an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU comes into play. Put simply, this commitment opens up the possibility of promising the British people things that in the past were impossible under EU rules. If you are going to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU then it’s possible to reach into the corners of British life and promise to make real changes and reforms, which previously   were not possible because of existing EU treaties.

Barring EU nationals from benefits for say a time period on entry into the UK is one such step that could be promised in the Tory manifesto in 2015, other areas include a new deal for our fishing industry, which has been decimated since UK entry into the EU, another is stricter immigration for EU citizens. These are all potentially red button issues for the Tories ahead of 2015.

The story on curtailing some benefits for EU nationals is potentially the first tack in a change of course for the Tories ahead of 2015. Labour will want to fight the election on stimulating the economy through extra government spending (in reality borrowing of course) while the Tories will want to fight it on taxes and now, it seems, rolling back unpopular elements of the EU from British life.

For the first time perhaps since 1983 there is a genuine ideological gulf between the two main political parties and it’s getting wider by the day.

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