One of the aims of David Cameron’s big immigration speech was to settle the issue with his backbenchers before returning to talk about the economy. Based on conversations I’ve had this morning with the key movers and shakers in the eurosceptic wing of the Tory party, he hasn’t got very close to settling the issue at all. Indeed, I suspect that there will be trouble before long.
Members of the hardcore of eurosceptics I describe in this week’s politics column are unhappy with what they think is a lack of ambition from the Prime Minister. They feel he’s been flirting with them a bit too much on this issue and has led them on to believe he would announce something much bigger than he then produced. Remember that the Prime Minister led the influential No Turning Back group to believe that he might introduce a points-based system, and dropped hints elsewhere about an emergency brake or a cap on numbers. The disgust disappointed backbenchers are now expressing could be set to ‘Day Tripper’ by the Beatles. One says:
‘He has marched us right up the hill and then pulled us down again. He’s probably lost the election for us today. Whether this will set something off, I do not know. There will be calls over the weekend to decide what to do.’
Another senior eurosceptic says:
‘I am in complete despair about it. It is as minimal as you can get. If this is what the renegotiation is going to be like, there isn’t going to be renegotiation, is there? The idea that we would leave the European Union just on the question of what we’re going to pay migrants in benefits, that’s like dying on the barbed wire for a tin of baked beans.’
A third says he also feels the measures are far too minimal and that this will neither assuage public frustration with the impact of immigration on public services nor deal with the Ukip threat. The consensus is that David Cameron will have to return to the issue again. Jacob Rees-Mogg told BBC News that ‘I don’t think it would be impossible to add a cap in at a later stage. We’ll have to wait and see’. Similarly, Nigel Mills, who organised an uprising over Bulgarian and Romanian migrants, says that while he likes the welfare measures themselves, this isn’t enough:
‘I thought he set it out pretty well, he had the balance of why the renegotiation is good. I think the welfare measures are probably as tough as you could have got, probably tougher than most of us thought, actually.
‘I think there is a fundamental problem though and that’s too many people are coming here, I’m not sure these measures will really cut through. We haven’t gone far enough presumably because he doesn’t think he could negotiate it, this wasn’t a we’re-going-to-solve-it moment. If people think there should be real control of our borders then they will have to vote to leave. I guess we will hope that these measures will work but I don’t think it fixes the political problem and trying to sell this on the doorstep will be hard.’
Peter Bone says:
‘This is a huge step forward, it’s banning benefits for four years, returning people who are criminals, many of these are central measures which we are right to implement. I don’t think the Prime Minister will succeed and I look forward to joining him on the campaign trail for a ‘No’ vote which will happen before 2017. It’s only the Conservatives that are attempting to do it, it’s a step forward, but ultimately we are going to need a cap or points system. I don’t think the EU will give us that and that’s why I and others are looking forward to the ‘Out’ campaign.’
Some eurosceptics are just very happy with what the Prime Minister said this morning. Mark Pritchard, who organised the rebellion on the EU budget cut, says:
‘The speech was necessarily thoughtful and politically achievable. It also rightly balanced the needs of the UK economy whilst recognising public concerns over the speed and scale of some EU migration. The new benefit curbs are welcome and will act as a natural brake on those from the EU who may be temped to come to the UK as benefit tourists.’
This remark from Pritchard helps us understand what sort of trouble the Prime Minister may be facing. Yes, there are MPs who are furious and who will be consulting one another over the weekend about how to put further pressure on Downing Street. They may organise another letter or a trouble-making vote. Some may even be thinking about crossing the floor.
But this trouble will not be of the same order as previous uprisings in the Conservative party because those angry backbenchers will not whip up nearly as many MPs into a frenzy as they used to. This is partly because some like Pritchard are pleased with the meat of the speech, others thought a cap would be bad for British business and others still are fed up with trouble in their party and just want to get a move on with beating Labour in the General Election. So if there is some kind of outburst next week, it may only entrench the divisions between the three camps that I set out here, rather than damage the PM himself.
That said, it was foolish of the Prime Minister to flirt quite as much as he did with backbenchers in the run-up to this speech. Why speak to the No Turning Back group and leave them with the impression you’re going to do something if the reality is that either you haven’t yet decided or you already think that particular policy is a bad idea? Why excite them only to let them down? Yet again David Cameron has made his life more difficult than he need simply through foolish party management.
However, today he also seems to have decided that he’s not going to give into the demands of the hardcore eurosceptics, even if it means they stamp their feet and despair with him. This isn’t quite a kicking-out of Militant, given he could yet yield if there is serious pressure, but today’s speech does seem to be an attempt by the Prime Minister to say to some quarters of his party that no, you’re not going to get everything you want from me. Whether that line holds is another matter.