Ken Clarke is one of the biggest beasts left in the Tory jungle. He had been a fixture in every Tory government since Ted Heaths time until Cameron retired him at the last reshuffle. But Clarke is clearly deeply concerned with Cameron’s strategy at the moment.
On Tuesday night, at a meeting of the Tory parliamentary party, Clarke warned Cameron that by talking up immigration so much, he was only helping Ukip. He argued that the public have an ‘insatiable appetite’ for clampdowns on immigration and so the Tories could never match Ukip on this. He said that, instead, the Tories should be talking about their strongest suit, the economy.
A surprisingly large number of Tory MPs agree with Clarke’s analysis. They feel that Ukip has knocked them off course and stopped them talking about their best issues; the popular tax cuts announced at conference have received barely a mention in the past fortnight.
But Cameron defended his approach, saying ‘the people are our bosses’ so if they are concerned about immigration, their representatives should be too. The Tory leadership feels that if they are going to be listened to on the economy, which is what they want the election to be about, they have to first show voters they have an answer on immigration. Hence the efforts to show that Cameron is going to make EU immigration a key part of the renegotiation.
The gamble that the Tories are taking is believing that they can do enough on this for voters. The danger for them is that they only end up talking up Ukip’s main issue.
There’s one very large caveat in all this, though. If the world economic situation continues to deteriorate, I suspect that the economy will become Topic A again pretty quickly.