I have been mulling over Dave’s Newsnight performance, which was mostly very impressive. I think, however, that his choice of words on immigration was a mistake. The problem with suggesting that there is an acceptable quantum of immigrants, however politely that proposition is expressed, is that it chimes with all that is worst in the party’s history of coping with this thorniest of issues. From the extreme of Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” ,via Margaret Thatcher’s use of the word “swamped” and William Hague’s “foreign land” speech, to Michael Howard getting tied in knots at the last election saying that Parliament should set a ceiling on the number of immigrants, this approach pins the Tory Party to the idea that immigration is toxic if taken in too high a dose. This, in turn, revives people’s suspicions that the party is inherently, ineradicably xenophobic: an unfair suspicion, no doubt, but a deeply damaging one nonetheless.
I don’t think Cameron has a bigoted cell in his body – indeed, no Tory leader has done more to raise the profile of ethnic minorities in his party and to embrace the reality of our modern, diverse country. But my own view is that the proposition he should be making again and again is that the Labour Government has managed the immigration system incompetently rather than the quite separate contention that there are too many immigrants in Britain. The issue should be bad government not bad demography. For a dangerous moment last night, Dave did look like an old-fashioned Tory, bemoaning the decline of the nation and the drain on public services caused by newcomers: a countenance entirely at odds with his optimistic spirit. I agree with George F Will that statecraft is soulcraft. Cameron needs to be careful not to sell his soul short.