David Cameron was in an extremely confident mood when he addressed the press at the end of today’s EU summit in Riga. He continually joked about journalists needing to write stories about the trials and tribulations of his EU renegotiations over the next couple of years, but those stories not meaning very much at all.
‘My advice would be – a bit like the election, really – wait for the result!’ he said gleefully when asked whether he would get what he wanted from the renegotiation. But he later admitted that ‘I’m not going to say I was met with a sort of wall of love when I arrived.’ Still, all of that is part of the ‘loads of noises’ we’ll hear which alternately suggest he’s failing or succeeding in his endeavours to get a better deal.
Some of the noises he made, though, were interesting. He made clear that ‘the interaction with the welfare system’ was the key thing he wanted to change about freedom of movement, which is fine on its own, perhaps, but it still isn’t going to drive down the numbers of EU migrants arriving here. Which means the Tories will continue to miss their net migration target after the renegotiation, unless they get some other kind of deal. And that begs the question of why on earth they made the pledge again for this election.
But what the Prime Minister’s remarks also remind us is that immigration could be an incredibly powerful tool for the ‘Out’ camp in the referendum. Currently there are tensions between the factions on the ‘Out’ side about whether it is wise to make immigration a main theme, but if Cameron’s biggest sleight of hand in presenting the renegotiation as more than it is turns out to be on this subject, then it would seem strange for those campaigners not to use it in some way, given it is an easy manifestation of many voters’ frustrations with the EU. But then again, making it the main theme rather than one of many tools might polarise the debate and put off the chunk of voters the ‘Out’ camp need.