James Forsyth

Hammond tries to thread the needle on EU immigration

Hammond tries to thread the needle on EU immigration
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Philip Hammond’s interview in The Telegraph this morning is striking for several reasons. First, Hammond admits that Britain isn’t going to regain full control of its borders in the renegotiation. As he puts it, ‘“If your ambition is that we have total unfettered control of our own borders to do what we like, that isn’t compatible with membership of the European Union, it’s as simple as that. And people who advocate that know jolly well it is not compatible with membership of the European Union. So if that’s what you want, you’re essentially talking about leaving the European Union.”

But he does seem to think that agreement on something that delivers similar results to a quota system is possible. He explains, ‘I wouldn’t go into a discussion with my European colleagues talking about quotas. But I might be talking about a mechanism that delivered the same kind of outcome’. This is, possibly, a reference to some kind of emergency brake.

Hammond is the most Eurosceptic Foreign Secretary the Conservatives have had since 1975; it is hard to imagine William Hague being so happy to talk about Britain walking away from the EU if it doesn’t get ‘substantial, meaningful reform’ in the renegotiation. But his comments on immigration are a recognition that there are limits to what the renegotiation can achieve.

I suspect that Ukip will seize on them and use them to argue that they are the only party to vote for if you want Britain to regain control of its own immigration policy. But given where expectations were ahead of Cameron’s speech on immigration, someone in the Conservative Cabinet needed to point out the realistic limits to what can be achieved on border policy without leaving the EU.