Not so tough: David Cameron should have left the Brexit threats out of an otherwise moderate speech


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It is a bad day when the Prime Minister has his agenda dictated to him by Ukip.

Be in no doubt about it, David Cameron would not have felt the need to make his much-trailed and highly publicised immigration speech, with its oblique hint that if pushed he will call for withdrawal from the EU, but for the panic that has rippled through Tory ranks over the rise of Nigel Farage’s right-wing army.

This could set us on the road to disaster, with the British public voting to sever ties with Europe and put up a sign saying that foreigners are not welcome here. The result of such folly can only be that we Britons grow poorer in our absurd, self-imposed isolation.

Yet it must be said that Cameron’s long-awaited speech was not as bad as it might have been, or as the passages selectively leaked to right-wing newspapers suggested.

We can support some of the measures he set out. The idea that someone who has come here supposedly to seek work should not be eligible for benefits for four years goes to the limit of what is just, but is not intrinsically unreasonable. The “benefit tourist” sailing in from Poland for the sole purpose of signing on is a creature who exists more in Ukip mythology than in real life; nonetheless, where he exists, he should be told either to seek work or go away.

It is also reasonable to say that child benefit should not be paid in this country for children who are not being brought up here – though we must expect that these changes to the benefit system should apply to Britons living in other EU states in the same way that they apply to EU citizens here. It is a harsh requirement that any EU citizen seeking work in the UK must have a job offer before they arrive, and it could lead to an increase in employers placing job advertisements abroad but not at home, which feeds resentment among out-of-work Britons.

More importantly, although the subtext of the speech was that Mr Cameron expects to achieve a deal with the other EU states, he still uttered that nonsensical phrase “nothing is ruled out” when it comes to our EU membership. The UK should not be opening a serious negotiation by threatening to throw the toys out of the pram.

It is, of course, important that the Government has a credible immigration policy and is able to exercise control. But a Prime Minister also needs to exercise political control, which – for a Conservative Prime Minister seeking to be a voice of moderation – means facing down the right. Mr Cameron did at least strike a positive note early on – “Britain is great because of immigration,” he said, “not in spite of it” – but this was quickly muffled.

And there is another category of immigrant who is not covered by EU rules on the free movement of labour, and who seems not to register with our Prime Minister – the asylum-seeker looking for a refuge from a cruel dictatorship, such as North Korea’s (p.8), or a conflict such as the civil war raging in Syria.

These people are in a different predicament from the job-seeking EU immigrant, though those who oppose immigration are apt to lump them all together. Asylum-seekers are not allowed to work while their applications are being processed, and are therefore automatically a cost on the state, but as a wealthy nation with a stable political system we have a moral obligation to give sanctuary to people who face terrible risks at home.