Nick Clegg gave his ‘sensible’ immigration speech this morning. He started off by agreeing with Labour’s Yvette Cooper that politicians shouldn’t enter an ‘arms race of rhetoric’, and then spent a considerable part of the speech either attacking Labour or backing a policy that his own colleagues had previously attacked: a security bond system for immigrants from ‘high-risk’ countries to cut down on people overstaying their visas. It’s also a policy that Theresa May backs. And what he doesn’t back anymore is the idea of an amnesty for illegal immigrants, which was a big Lib Dem policy in 2010. Clegg said:
‘But despite the policy’s aims, it was seen by many people as a reward for those who have broken the law. And so it risked undermining public confidence in the immigration system. The very public confidence that is essential to a tolerant and open Britain. That is why I am no longer convinced this specific policy should be retained in our manifesto for the next General Election.’
This might annoy Clegg’s party. And while the Deputy Prime Minister was talking about how to be tough on immigration, his colleague Vince Cable was causing trouble with his House magazine interview in which he argued that the net migration target was ‘Conservative policy, not Government policy’. But what Clegg is doing here, very clearly, is making sure that the Lib Dems don’t shoot themselves in the foot with policies that are either unworkable or electoral turn-offs for the 2015 in the way they did with tuition fees in 2010. Clegg insisted that his party wouldn’t ‘seek to outflank our opponents because we think that’s what people want to hear’. But he also knows that he does have to be ‘sensible’, that is, to not propose things that sound wonderful in a fringe meeting at a Lib Dem spring conference but which make potential voters run away screaming from the party.