The Week in Politics: Legislation cannot solve the immigration crisis

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair has been tearing his remaining hair out over the crisis on immigration. This is the one issue that he did not want at the top of the political agenda.

The Prime Minister's much-criticised obsession with focus groups has means that he has always taken asylum and immigration seriously. He is also haunted by events in the traditionally tolerant Netherlands, where an anti-immigration party founded by Pim Fortuyn, who was murdered in 2002, hadelectoral success and booted the social democrats out of office.

"This must never happen here," was Mr Blair's edict. But now it just might. The word "crisis" is over-used, but it is not an overstatement of the atmosphere in the Government after the resignation of Beverley Hughes as Immigration minister. "Tony is exasperated," one ally told me yesterday.

Mr Blair's pain was all the more acute because he had good reason to think that the problem had been cracked. Mr Blair does not need to "take charge" of the crisis, as some newspapers suggest, because he has been "hands on" for years.

The Government hit its target to halve the number of asylum-seekers. "He thought we had tamed this monster. Now it has come back to bite us," a cabinet minister said yesterday.

The Government has a good story to tell on asylum. You would not know that from yesterday's headlines - and probably tomorrow's. The visas scam in Romania and Bulgaria which led to Ms Hughes's downfall may or may not have been an isolated incident. But perception is reality and the affair suggests the system is in chaos.

Mr Blair's three-pronged strategy was to be "tough but fair" on asylum with managed migration to help fill jobs and work hard to ensure racial integration.

The approach was based on keeping asylum and immigration separate - but that is difficult. "In the public's mind, the two are conflated," one government aide said. Ministers do not underestimate the electoral risks. Immigration may merge into a dangerous cocktail with other issues such as terrorism and Europe.

On Wednesday, the top stories on ITV News were the jailing of Andrezej Kunowski, a rapist and killer from Poland living illegally in Britain; the Commons clash between Michael Howard and Mr Blair over immigration and the eight suspected Islamic terrorists of Pakistani descent. On Thursday, The Mirror, which normally takes a tolerant stance on race relations, splashed the Kunowski story under a headline: "Let in to Kill."

Labour strategists fear these issues, under a broad "security" umbrella, could have a huge impact at the 10 June elections for the European Parliament, local authorities and the London Mayor. The party's private polls show the Tories miles head on asylum.

The issue could cost Labour dearly among its traditional working class supporters. Rightly or wrongly, many believe that asylum-seekers are jumping the queue for housing, benefits and NHS treatment.

The Tories can hardly believe their luck. They collected a notable scalp in Ms Hughes. For them, the elections come at a good time. The proposed European Union constitution is back on the front burner and 10 new countries, including eight from Eastern Europe, join the EU on 1 May.

Yet the Tories must tread with care. Mr Howard may be the son of immigrants from Romania. But the voters, for all their concern about asylum, do not like politicians who play the race card. That is why Mr Blair implied in the Commons - unfairly, I thought - that the Tory leader was doing so.

Similarly, ministers have vented their spleen at The Sunday Times, which has broken a string of stories on the immigration crisis. But ministers' attacks are wide of the mark: there is a world of difference between tabloid tales which pander to people's worst prejudices and legitimate revelations about flaws in the immigration system.

However, it is wrong to suggest the entire system is close to collapse. Like Mr Blair, David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, has devoted much energy to sorting out the mess he inherited, from the Tories and his predecessor Jack Straw. There is much more to Mr Blunkett than the illiberal caricature drawn by his critics. Two months ago, a spate of newspaper stories about likely entrants from the eight Eastern European countries worried Mr Blair and Mr Straw, who were tempted to opt for a quota scheme like other EU members. Mr Blunkett opposed the idea, warning that it would drive entrants into the black economy. He won the argument.

Politics is sometimes unfair and the Prime Minister and Home Secretary must reassure the public. If there is one lesson they could learn from the past week, it is that complex issues like asylum and immigration are not solved by legislation or "Blair takes charge" headlines.

To a large extent, they are management problems that must be dealt with at the front line, not in Downing Street or the Home Office. For that reason, cutting 40,000 civil service jobs and disciplining whistleblowers may not be clever politics.