Mr Blair had the chance to tell a good story about immigration instead of a fearful one

A bold government evangelises on issues that are unpopular. This one rarely challenges popular prejudices

The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, is a busy man. Sometimes he is busier than he needs to be.

Yesterday he made a statement in the House of Commons on his plans for dealing with migrant workers from the countries about to join the European Union. In spite of all the hype they were more or less the same plans he had announced two years ago. Indeed Mr Blunkett made that very point. In essence he confirmed that those seeking work would be welcome, but they would not be able to abuse the benefits' system. The new register announced by Mr Blunkett will be used to monitor employment trends. Rightly it will not be a mechanism to prevent migrants from taking up work.

So why did ministers feel the need to make such a noise? The political choreography over this issue has been timidly defensive, beginning with Mr Blair's evasiveness at recent Prime Minister's Question Times, taking in the (largely accurate) reports of internal ministerial wrangling over what should be done about migration in an enlarged EU and ending with yesterday's over-hyped ministerial announcements.

The government has shown an uncertain touch over an issue that cried out for a self-confident assertiveness. In particular Mr Blair and Mr Blunkett's heavy-handed presentational response to recent media hysteria underlines the degree to which this is a government that remains neurotically fearful of its own hold on office.

Over this issue even Mr Blunkett was caught by surprise. Normally he is fully in tune with the Downing Street strategic approach to immigration and asylum policies: under no circumstances must the government be seen as a soft touch. If Mr Blunkett had his doubts about such a strategy (which he does not) as Home Secretary he would not have much room for manoeuvre. Downing Street is in constant frenetic dialogue with the Home Office, more so than any other government department

It is one of the reasons why there have been so many asylum bills in this parliament and the last. Much of the legislation has been symbolic: "Look we are responding to this story ... oh, and that story as well". Mr Blunkett is normally so alert to Downing Street's neuroses that he has learnt to announce an initiative in some policy or other on most days of the week. But on this occasion he was not ready with a response or initiative of any kind.

This is because Mr Blair had shown every sign of being fully in favour of the original "open door" policy for migrant workers. When the policy was agreed more than two years ago Downing Street and the Foreign Office were united in their enthusiasm, partly for diplomatic reasons. So often lagging behind in the EU, Britain would be a shining example to others in the enlarged EU. Meanwhile Mr Blunkett had researched into the economic implications and concluded that they would be positive rather than a threat and that, anyway, only a few thousand immigrants were expected.

It is worth stressing that this is broadly still the government's position, but the presentational emphasis has changed. Some alarm bells began to ring in Whitehall when other countries announced fairly rigid restrictions on migrant workers. The Foreign Office was alarmed in particular when the normally liberal Sweden announced tough restrictions. Even so Mr Blunkett was confident about the beneficial impact on the labour market of Britain's more liberal policy and assumed that was the view in Downing Street as well.

This was until earlier this month when Michael Howard, echoing the hysterical reports in some newspapers, raised the issue at Prime Minister's Questions Time. On two separate occasions Mr Blair made no clear distinction between the potential abuse of benefits and the fears of Britain being deluged by unwanted labour. Mr Howard gave him several opportunities, but he would not do so.

Ever since, Mr Blunkett has been in discussions with the Prime Minister, putting the case for the government's original well-researched policy. In doing so Mr Blunkett has demonstrated that he is a more rounded figure than his caricature of an authoritarian populist suggests. But he chooses his issues carefully and on this one he knew that Mr Blair's instincts were the same as his. The Prime Minister was more concerned about reassuring voters than changing greatly the original policy.

Not for the first time Mr Blair has been thrown off course by the media. To a lesser extent Mr Howard had also raised the stakes. The Conservative leader is astute at recognising areas where Mr Blair is vulnerable or, to be more precise, feels vulnerable. Mr Howard worries much less about having coherent policies of his own. In theory Mr Howard should support the free movement of labour within the EU. He and his party have been strong advocates of enlargement. Now the EU is getting larger Mr Howard rails against the consequences. Similarly the Conservative leader is an enthusiast for the free movement of capital. Now he is calling for severe restrictions on the free movement of labour. This is not a consistent position.

Mr Blair could have had much fun exposing the weaknesses of Mr Howard's stance and evangelising about the strength of the Government's original policy. He had plenty of material to work with. Yesterday the centre-left think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), published extensive research on the impact of migrant workers on Britain. The IPPR's new director, Nick Pearce, was an adviser to Mr Blunkett when the Government's "open door" policy was originally agreed.

The research suggests that those who seek employment will be largely highly skilled workers or unskilled and therefore willing to take poorly paid jobs. In nearly all cases they would take up jobs where there is an acute shortage. The workers are unlikely to settle in Britain permanently. Within a few decades the IPPR predicts that the direction of migrant workers is likely to be in reverse, with more of them heading for the expanding economies of Eastern Europe.

For the government this could have been an opportunity to make a good news story out of two sensitive issues, Europe and Immigration. Its policy remains liberal, but its presentation seeks more ambiguous headlines. The top line from Mr Blair's comments yesterday was that those seeking benefits would be "put out of the country", implying that these new developments are sinister and the government must deal with them. The developments are not sinister and it plays into the hands of the xenophobes to imply otherwise.

A bold government evangelises on issues that are often unpopular. This administration rarely uses the pulpit provided by a landslide majority to challenge popular prejudices. Here was a chance to change perceptions on Europe and immigration by highlighting the huge potential benefits. The government has chosen instead to give credence to irrational fears. When rightwing newspapers stir, Mr Blair loses his capacity for boldness.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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