We are still waiting for David Cameron’s immigration speech, expected ‘this week’. The Conservatives tried to get their apology in early for failing to meet their target to get net migration into the ‘tens of thousands’, with a series of interventions starting this summer in which top Cabinet ministers started to highlight the problems with having a target when you can’t control EU migration, ahead of today’s figures showing that the target is an ex-target, or a ‘comment’, as Theresa May tried to pass it off as recently.
Fraser looks at why missing that target is a good thing for this country in his post here. But it is bad politically for a number of reasons. Firstly it’s another broken promise. That doesn’t help any politician, especially when parties who claim not to be stuffed with the usual sorts of politicians, such as Ukip, are gaining in popularity. Today Ukip’s migration spokesman Steven Woolfe, said:
‘This is either a total scandal or a long standing con trick by a Party who were elected on the promise of reducing immigration to the tens of thousands.Today's astronomical migration figures show an abject failure by this Government to control immigration, despite countless promises to the public. The eye-watering increase places immense strain on employment prospects, schools, hospitals and housing.There is nothing Cameron can say or do now that can right this massive wrong.’
Secondly, not only are the Tories planning to go from bad figures on immigration to talking about immigration again in a forthcoming set-piece speech, but they have also spent the past month or so talking extensively about immigration too. Their campaign in Rochester saw them responding to Ukip with really very unpleasant literature, including a leaflet that linked immigration and fear of crime. This is what it said:
‘Most people I know here have worked hard all their lives, played by the rules and paid their fair share, but we sometimes struggle to access the services we need because of uncontrolled immigration. Others don’t feel safe walking down the high street of our town.’
A number of Tory MPs were really disheartened by the campaign that their party ran in Rochester and Strood, given how many other achievements the Conservatives can now list. They thought that the campaign should have focused on those achievements, rather than be sucked into a row with Ukip who will always make tougher proposals on immigration.
The party is aware that it must get back on to talking about the economy - indeed, when the Prime Minister met Tony Abbott and Stephen Harper at the G20 summit, he was struck (and Lynton Crosby apparently rather cheered) by their insistence that he focus relentlessly on beating Labour by talking about the economy. And the speech that Cameron has planned will be an attempt to tick the immigration box before moving back onto the issue where the Tories enjoy such a big lead over Labour. But the fact remains that the Conservatives have made cutting immigration a big deal and are therefore embarrassed by figures today which they could see as good news.
Cameron has also really excited his party about what he wants to propose, particularly with the hints he dropped to the No Turning Back Group. They are expecting big things.
Some eurosceptic backbenchers have been taking every opportunity they have when they bump into Cameron or George Osborne to press for immediate action on immigration. But others think it is folly to have a big speech on this subject. Even those who have campaigned relentlessly for a more robust approach to Europe fear that this will just help Ukip and that there is no benefit at all in talking about immigration.
But the speech is on the way, and so Cameron has clearly decided that he will be just as damned if he doesn’t address this issue as if he does. It will be interesting to see how he attempts to address the failure of the last Tory proposal on this subject before setting out a series of new promises. He needs to give voters some evidence that the new plans won’t be as impossible to implement as the target that has just failed.