It was billed as a major speech about immigration policy.
The Prime Minister’s address to party activists in Hampshire yesterday was nothing of the sort. No new policy was announced. Instead it was a speech about party politics in which David Cameron sought to side with what he perceives as majority public opinion. The objective was to point up the distance between the Coalition partners on this emotive issue, in the run-up to English council elections. LibDem Business Secretary Vince Cable played into his hands beautifully by describing his wording as “very unwise”. Mission accomplished for a Prime Mminister who understands the value of the occasional dog whistle during campaigning.
This is dangerous territory. Mr Cameron is right to maintain that we need to have a rational debate about immigration. He is also correct in saying that the rapid influx of large numbers of migrants into certain English communities has been “the cause of discomfort and disjointedness”.
The speech emphasised the difference in attitudes between England and Scotland on this issue. North of the Border there is a recognition that an unevenly spread population, some marked skills gaps and simple demographics mean immigrants are welcome. As the Coalition has realised, a crude cap on immigration risks the viability of universities dependent on the fees of foreign students and companies that cannot thrive without recruiting key specialists from abroad. Rather than pandering to prejudice, his government could start by restoring the £70m fund created by the last government to soften the impact of migration on particular communities.
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