Is David Cameron about to announce emergency controls on European jobseekers or a points-based system on EU migration? The Times and the Sun both splashed on these ideas today (after Coffee House first revealed Cameron had promised a ‘big bang’ policy to Tory MPs, then led some of them to believe that he could introduce an Australian-style points-based system), and the PM was confronted on both as he did his walkout in Rochester, where he is campaigning today for the by-election.
Funnily enough, the Prime Minister didn’t deny any of the reports – partly because it’s convenient to do so when trying to beat Ukip but also because this is all as a result of comments he himself has made. On the ’emergency brake’, he said:
‘We’ll be setting out all of our plans in due course. But we’ve already taken a lot of action, closing down bogus colleges, making sure people can’t come and access benefits immediately, making sure that we’re tougher on people that are here illegally and send them home. All of these changes are taking place and of course it’s one of the biggest issues in this election.’
And on the points-based system, he said:
‘We’re setting out our plans in due course. But inside the EU we’ve already said new countries that join the EU shouldn’t have automatic access to Britain, that’s important. we’ve said that it’s time to crack down on access to our benefits system, we’ve done that, and that is important. This is an important issue alongside the rest of our long-term economic plan that is delivering for people in Rochester and Strood.’
He has to set out what the Tories have already done lest Ukip accuse him of making up policies to try to fight their growing threat, but Cameron has not denied either story.
But what he did also say was that he wanted ‘one last go’ at negotiating a better deal for Britain. He said:
‘That means the action outside the European Union, which we’ve done anyway, but it also means some action inside the European Union, including things like use of the benefits system, including making sure that when new countries join they can’t all come here which is what happened when Labour were in government.
‘But also further action in addition to that to make sure we have more effective control on migration. It’s not going to be easy. These things are never easy but frankly I think that Britain can say, as a country that has contributed massively to European prosperity and progress over not just in the last few years but over centuries we should have one last go at negotiating a better deal.’
‘One last go’ is a continuation of his suggestion that immigration will be a red line in the negotiations and that if he doesn’t get what he wants, Cameron can contemplate leaving the EU. It is the latest in a series of hints that the Prime Minister has been dropping ever since he failed to block Jean-Claude Juncker’s appointment as President of the European Commission. In the Commons debate after that, the Prime Minister shifted his language very slightly to suggest that he didn’t want to stay in the bloc at all costs. Now his language is bolder and clearer.
This is of course a response to the Ukip threat and the question is whether voters really believe Cameron or whether by toughening his stance on immigration and EU reform, he simply reinforces Ukip’s point.
In this week’s magazine, former Ukip leader Lord Pearson argues that all this panic would never have been necessary had Cameron bothered to talk to Ukip in 2009 when he offered a pact with the Tories. He writes:
‘Soon after Ukip came second in the 2009 EU elections, David Willoughby de Broke and I went to see Tom Strathclyde, then Tory leader in the Lords. We said Ukip would stand aside at the 2010 election if given a binding promise of an EU in/out referendum.’
But Pearson claims that the Tory leader then banned Strathclyde from talking to Ukip:
‘Cameron had refused to let Tom Strathclyde even speak to us privately. He thought he had moved his party sufficiently to the left that he was going to win the election on Lib Dem votes shifting to the Conservatives!’
You can read the full piece here. Cameron won’t want to cry over spilt milk even if he does believe he could have countered the Ukip threat earlier. But why he didn’t accept the offer will be another awkward question levelled at him, particularly if things don’t go the Conservatives’ way in Rochester.