John Rentoul: One hot potato makes a mash-up

Making political capital of immigration is a hazardous ploy for the Prime Minister and the coalition

Share
Related Topics

The new orthodoxy on the liberal side of politics is that immigration is an issue that must be faced, preferably squarely, and not brushed aside as a code for racism. So when the Prime Minister makes a speech about it, what do liberals do? They welcome it as a chance to face the issue squarely and to debate the substantive policy arguments made – I don't think. No, they brush aside the issue and accuse David Cameron of issuing a coded invitation to racists to vote Conservative in the forthcoming local elections.

The mistaken metaphor of the moment is the dog whistle. The whole point of a dog whistle is that only dogs can hear it. If Cameron were trying to bypass the liberal media, Vince Cable and the One Nation element of his own party base, sending a secret message to racist voters tempted by the British National Party, then it was the most unsuccessful signal since Admiral Nelson was told to withdraw.

Actually, as a piece of politics, although this is beside the point, the speech worked well. It distracted from the bad NHS story and allowed Saint Vince to pose as the defender of all that is decent and do-gooding about Twickenham while simultaneously allowing Overlord Cameron to pose as all that is wrathful and authoritarian about the Tory heartland, but who has to be restrained by the demands of coalition government. In other words, the coalition is working perfectly and there is no need for Ed Miliband at all. Job done.

But what was the speech actually about? Let us try to recover the spirit of the new liberal orthodoxy and to deal with immigration policy on its merits. An almost comical idea, I know, but let us try. As Hugo Rifkind said in The Times, it was "a good speech, but it was disguised, quite heavily, as a bad one".

It was a thoughtful and well-written bringing together of the Government's policies, in the way expected of a prime minister. Although it was deemed to be party political and was published on the Conservatives' website rather than the No 10 one, it was a speech that Gordon Brown or Tony Blair could have delivered – minus the misleading implication that the coalition had inherited a mess from Labour and that May last year marked a sharp change of policy rather than a continuation of it.

To understand immigration policy, we need a different metaphor from the dog whistle. We need to think of someone carrying too many potatoes in a wet paper sack. This is a Bangladeshi saying, according to the late Anthony Bevins, once my boss on The Independent's political staff. His wife, Mishtu, was from Bangladesh, which makes it a fitting analogy for the present purpose.

Theresa May, the Home Secretary, used it – in spirit – when she compared managing immigration to squeezing a balloon: "Push down on work visas and the number of student visas will shoot up. Clamp down on student visas and family visas will spring up." Cameron liked the balloon metaphor so much that he quoted it in his own speech. I prefer the bag of potatoes, but the principle is the same, and neither May nor Cameron seem to realise how it will continue to apply to them.

The biggest hostage to fortune in Cameron's speech was his vainglorious claim, after he has been Prime Minister for less than a year, to have solved the problem. He went through the bulges in the bag, one by one: economic migrants, family unions, student visas, illegal immigration. Curiously, he left out asylum, eventually brought under control by the previous government. Although, in a perfect illustration of the balloon or bag analogy, as soon as asylum applications came down, student visas rose – they had "almost trebled over the past decade", Cameron said. "Now, because of what we're doing, this country finally has consistent controls right across the immigration system."

That is a remarkably foolish claim, as Margaret Hodge points out in our special report on immigration today.

It was striking that Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, did not accuse Cameron of using immigration for electoral purposes, but chose to attack him, by implication, from the right. She suggested that his new controls would not work, saying that while he is "cutting one set of student visas, he is simply expanding another, student visitor visas, which won't count in the net migration figures". In other words, he might stop the potatoes popping out of one hole only for the bag to rip somewhere else.

The weakness of Cameron's speech was not therefore that he shouldn't have made it when he did, but that he claimed to have more control over immigration than he has. He tried to dispose of the "myth" that "we can't control immigration significantly".

On this he faces a dilemma. He wants to reassure people that the Government has a grip; yet by claiming to have got a grip he risks raising expectations that cannot be met. The Labour government also wrestled with the wet bag of potatoes, trying to control flows that were mostly driven by Britain's economic success. David Blunkett, Home Secretary when the European Union expanded in 2004, made what Cameron now regards as a mistake in allowing the free movement of Poles and Czechs, with no inkling that a million of them would come to help keep the boom going.

That is not going to happen again, and the recession means that the economic pull of immigration is weakened, meaning that it will be easier for the coalition to claim to have reduced numbers that are bound to be lower anyway.

But that won't last for long. Soon Cameron will find that the sack is splitting again, and he may come to regret claiming that he has effected a comprehensive, whole-bag solution to the problem. He thinks he's got one of those bags for life for which you pay 10p extra in Waitrose, but he doesn't realise that it isn't big enough either. The handles will soon break and the seams will split.

twitter.com/JohnRentoul; independent.co.uk/jrentoul

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Yarl's Wood in Bedfordshire, Britain’s largest Immigration Removal Centre  

Thanks to Channel 4 we now see just how appallingly Yarl’s Wood detention centre shames Britain

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
 

If I were Prime Minister: I’d ensure ministers took mental health in the armed forces as seriously as they take physical wounds

James Jones
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?