Mr Howard's immigration ploy is shameful, but Labour is letting him get away with it

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The Independent Online

Michael Howard's campaign speech on immigration may have been planned long before this weekend's batch of relatively disappointing opinion polls for the Conservatives. But it is still hard to escape the impression that the Tory leader's first instinct, when he feels his party needs a lift, is to make a lunge for the anti-immigration vote. That he wields a verbal scalpel rather than a sledgehammer does not make this strategy any less despicable.

Michael Howard's campaign speech on immigration may have been planned long before this weekend's batch of relatively disappointing opinion polls for the Conservatives. But it is still hard to escape the impression that the Tory leader's first instinct, when he feels his party needs a lift, is to make a lunge for the anti-immigration vote. That he wields a verbal scalpel rather than a sledgehammer does not make this strategy any less despicable.

Yesterday's appearance before an audience in Telford - a town with a troubled history of race relations - was a classic of the genre that Mr Howard is rapidly making his own. In the precise words he used, in the individual sentences as he formed them, there was little that anyone could take exception to. Indeed, there were sentiments that, taken at face value, could even be described as liberal. The asylum system, he said, was deeply inhumane and profoundly unjust - which it often is. He tried to pre-empt charges that he was a traitor to his immigrant forebears by praising the contribution made to British life by hard-working immigrants and this country's enviable record of racial integration. He is right on both scores.

The devil was less in the detail that Mr Howard presented than in the innuendo. He suggested that the Government had an interest in turning a blind eye to illegal immigrants because it allowed targets to be met. The inference - nudge and wink - was that the numbers were far greater than declared. He implied a connection between new arrivals and terrorism: if the Government could not keep track of who was entering and leaving the country, it was "playing fast and loose with our security". There is not the slightest evidence that either of these oblique conclusions is true.

Where - regrettably - Mr Howard cannot be gainsaid is in his contention that immigration is becoming an issue in this election - not only because he is making it one, but because the Government is running scared of it. Yesterday, Labour spokesmen went into panic response mode even before Mr Howard had spoken. Peter Hain spoke of the shameless use of "scurrilous, right-wing, ugly tactics". Alan Milburn, for his part, argued that the Tories had no realistic solution, while Labour says "we need strict controls that work".

All of which only highlighted the poverty of the Government's response. It may well be true that the system for legal immigration has been flawed, although not in the way the Tories contend. But it is also true that ministers were for far too long unresponsive to public concern. They allowed the Opposition to paint them as incompetent and the system for those arriving in this country, whether as legal immigrants, temporary workers or asylum-seekers, as chaotic and out of control. When ministers did tackle the issue, especially during David Blunkett's tenure at the Home Office, they permitted the Tories to dictate the terms and tried to present themselves as tougher than tough. Mr Milburn's reply yesterday was in the same stereotypical and negative vein.

The fact is that, while the Tories have been outrageously exploiting the immigration card, the Government has not done nearly enough to discourage them. It has made little effort to clarify the distinction between asylum-seekers and migrants. And it has done almost nothing to demonstrate the manifold benefits to Britain from immigration, even in its current, not especially well organised form.

It has been left to the Liberal Democrats to put the positive case - as Charles Kennedy did so admirably yesterday. Immigration, he insisted, was not an issue for "party political posturing". He rejected a cap on numbers of asylum-seekers, saying it would betoken a "much crueller Britain". And he argued that this country was "richer and more vibrant" precisely because it was "a multi-racial, multi-ethnic society". He is right across the board. What a shame that Mr Howard did not use the opportunity of his speech in Telford to surprise us with a more positive, less partisan, approach - and what a scandal that Labour has never really tried to do so either.

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