Mr Howard and another missed opportunity

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The Independent Online

Michael Howard delivered a speech on immigration that demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of the needs of Britain's labour market

Michael Howard yesterday delivered a speech on immigration that demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of the needs of Britain's labour market. The UK needs more workers, whether they are nurses, economists, au pairs or kitchen hands. It also needs more young people to offset the effects of an ageing society. By setting out how he would make it more difficult for people to come and work in Britain, the Tory leader has made it clear that he prefers to pander to prejudice rather than to act rationally.

Despite Mr Howard's attempts to praise the contribution immigrants make to British life, his speech implied a xenophobic agenda. By conflating the issues of asylum and economic immigration, Mr Howard echoed the rants of the populist press that portray any foreigner as a parasite. The leader of a serious political party should know better than to lump together those who flee persecution with those who come to Britain for employment.

The two "big ideas" in the Conservative leader's speech were a commitment to pull out of the UN convention on refugees and the creation of an annual limit on the number of immigrants allowed into Britain. Neither stands up to scrutiny. Mr Howard did not specify what he would replace the UN convention with, so we can safely assume that the Conservatives do not have a viable alternative to this statement of the right to claim asylum. His annual immigration limit is just as flawed. Though quota systems have something to be said for them, it is hard to see how the one proposed by Mr Howard would distinguish between skilled and unskilled workers, or make proper reference to the needs of the British economy.

The Conservative Party remains confused over immigration. It claims to recognise that immigrant workers are creators of wealth, but tailors its policies to appeal to xenophobes. Tories claim to be champions of the free market, but when it comes to the free movement of people and the needs of a growing economy, common sense deserts them. Mr Howard has missed the opportunity to present himself as the leader of a modern party committed to economic liberalism. Instead, he offered only more evidence of a mistaken drift to the right.