So long as the economy was at the top of the agenda, ‘Remain’ will have felt safe in the knowledge that ‘Leave’ could do little to win over the public’s trust. But today, the Prime Minister has his former aide and friend Steve Hilton to thank for bringing the issue of migration soaring back into the headlines. What’s particularly dangerous for the Government about what Steve Hilton had to say is his claim that the PM was directly told in 2012 that meeting the promise to bring net migration down to the ‘tens of thousands’ was impossible. Here’s what Steve Hilton told the Daily Mail:
‘We were told, directly and explicitly, that it was impossible for the Government to meet its immigration target as long as we remained members of the EU, which of course insists on the free movement of people within it.’
The PM’s old advisor has compounded the claims by saying, in an interview with the BBC, that ‘making promises that clearly can’t be kept is not a good way to build trust in politics’. Immigration has always been the soft underbelly of the ‘Remain’ campaign. And with a figure who was so important to David Cameron’s government making these claims, it is not difficult to see the potential for damage to those campaigning for Britain to stay ‘In’.
The gulf between the ‘tens of thousands’ target and the 333,000 net migration figure from last year will have angered many who backed the Tories on the basis of this promise. What’s more, the Government’s repeated attempts to downgrade this manifesto promise to a ‘pledge’ also gives credence to the view that meeting this target is not going to happen any time soon – which ties in with Steve Hilton’s claims.
Downing Street has hit back at what Hilton had to say by insisting they ‘simply do not recognise this story’. But the danger for the ‘Remain’ camp here is two-fold: firstly, by raising immigration back onto the agenda, the ‘Leave’ campaign will have put their rivals onto the back foot. And secondly, if there’s one thing the public don’t like being misled over, it’s the issue of immigration. Distrust in politicians and unfettered migration makes for a toxic blend for the ‘Remain’ campaign who have been at pains to convince voters that this referendum shouldn’t be seen as a personal vote against the Prime Minister and the Tory Government. The danger for ‘Remain’ is that stories like this fit into voters’ fears they’re being sold a pup. And in a referendum which is largely about trust, that could prove hugely damaging indeed.