Isabel Hardman

Osborne admits net migration target is impossible without EU reform

Osborne admits net migration target is impossible without EU reform
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George Osborne's interview today with the Sun on Sunday does show the Conservatives are starting to see a little bit of sense about their net migration target. They're starting to realise that they aren't going to meet it when they can only control non-EU migration. It's surprising, really, that it's taken them so long to realise that the target was going to be a bit tricky to meet. In this week's magazine, Douglas Murray argues that Cameron will need to listen - really listen - to voters' concerns about immigration if he is to have a hope of winning next year:

'Because the deep, underlying story of last week is clear: the British public have made the connection between the EU and mass immigration. They do not like the latter and they blame it on the former. For years polls have continued to show that the vast majority of the British public want immigration reduced. The figures are always similar and we are — it is important to note — never talking about a minority opinion here. One recent poll showed that 77 per cent of the public want immigration reduced, while 78 per cent said that England is overcrowded and a staggering 85 per cent say that immigration is placing too much pressure on public services. It takes an absolutely blind political class not to see what the public can most certainly see.

'Unfortunately for the Conservative party, they appear to be led by just such people.'

But it is still significant that the Chancellor has said the following:

'We are delivering on the policy, and the key dimension to it which we now need to deliver on is the European aspect.

'That requires renegotiation of our membership of the EU and an in-out referendum so the British people have their say. The point that people need to focus on is that a General Election is not a free hit - it matters who the government is.'

Osborne is employing the current Conservative squeeze message on would-be Ukip voters. But he's also in effect accepting that the net migration target will fail this side of the general election.

There are two points worth considering. The first is how the Conservatives think they can achieve fundamental reform of freedom of movement in the European Union when Angela Merkel has made clear that this is not up for grabs. David Cameron has said he is so confident that he can get what he wants from a renegotiation that he can already declare he will be campaigning for Britain to stay in, so he's either acting on very secret intelligence, or a bit too optimistic for his own good.

The second is why on earth did the Prime Minister make such a song and dance of saying he thought the target was 'achievable' and that he was committed to it when asked about it only a few weeks ago at the Liaison Committee? He did very carefully craft his answers so that at no point did he say that the Conservatives would meet this target. But why bother even doing that?

The answer is of course that the European elections, the latest migration statistics from the ONS and an offer of help on this from Conservative eurosceptics have all taken place since he made this assertion. But it makes Cameron look a bit wibbly on commitments if his colleagues are now prepared to be honest - as they should be - about the target he only recently recommitted himself to.