How Cameron could get on front foot with migration

by Hugo Dixon | 03.06.2016

Here’s a crazy thought. David Cameron should fess up that he won’t hit his migration goal. He should admit that it has been harder than he thought to cut net migration to the tens of thousands and that reaching it is an aspiration rather than a target.

If the prime minister is frank, voters may then listen to positive arguments about free movement and how it can be better managed. Cameron will also be able to go on the counter-attack and show how the Leave camp’s migration policy is snake oil.

Such a move would be a high risk, high reward strategy. Acknowledging he made a mistake on such an important pledge could play into the hands of the Leave camp.

But continuing with the current approach is high risk, low reward. The Remain camp is getting hammered on migration. If we lose this battle, we may lose the entire referendum.

Look at what happened on Sky News last night. Faisal Islam, its political editor, skewered Cameron over how he had missed his target – last year net migration (from the whole world, not just the EU) was 333,000. The premier said it was a reasonable promise when he first made it because migration flows between Britain and the rest of the EU were then roughly balanced. But Islam pointed out that Cameron had reaffirmed the target before last year’s general election, at which point there was already a big net inflow from the EU.

So long as Cameron has this target round his neck like an albatross, everything he says on migration will lack credibility. And because he dominates the Remain camp, his failure to ditch it could drag down the entire side.

The risk of fessing up may also be exaggerated. Everybody knows the government isn’t hitting the target. Cameron has already edged away from it – describing it as an ambition and refusing to commit himself to a date for reaching it. If he admits his error, voters may appreciate the frankness, given how rarely politicians tell the truth about difficult topics.

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    The premier could then get onto the front foot – and deliver four messages.

    First, EU migration is on balance good for us. It is a sign of our economic success, the fact that we are a jobs factory. EU migrants are creating the wealth that can be used to cut hospital waiting times and pay for more teachers.

    EU membership is not bad for the NHS, schools, jobs, wages or housing. It is Brexit that would be bad for all these things. It might create a recession; it would create a black hole in the public finances; unemployment would rise and wages fall; young people would be particularly badly hit and those without jobs wouldn’t get on the housing ladder.

    Second, Cameron should admit that the wealth that free movement creates doesn’t always reach the communities where it is needed fast enough. So there are pinch points, where GP surgeries are struggling and schools don’t have enough teachers. The UK chooses to spend less on health than other rich countries. So the premier should promise more resources that can be rapidly deployed where they are needed.

    Third, Cameron should go on the counter-attack. There is no chance that the Leave camp’s own proposal for an Australian points system will get net migration down to the tens of thousands either. Here’s why:

    1. Net migration from outside the EU is already 188,000.
    2. Vote Leave says it wants more migrants from outside the EU. So the base number has to be north of 200,000.
    3. It also says it wants EU migration to be managed on the same basis as non-EU migration. That means it won’t fall to zero.  
    4. If we make it illegal for many EU migrants to come here, some will still come here illegally. They won’t pay taxes, as they do now. They will work in the black market, undercutting our workers’ wages.
    5. If we limit EU migrants coming here, the rest of the EU will make it harder for us to live and work there. So the outflow of UK citizens will fall.

    Put all these factors together and it is clear that the numbers wouldn’t fall much. The only way Brexit could achieve that is by trashing the economy so badly that few people will want to come here.

    Finally, there’s a better way forward: stay in the EU and work with our partners to make the whole European economy more dynamic so it creates more good jobs; and continue creating the wealth that can fund our schools and NHS.

    Will Cameron adopt such a plan? He may find everything about it attractive apart from admitting he won’t hit his target. That may be better than nothing. But there’s still the risk is that nobody would believe him.

    Hugo Dixon is the author of The In/Out Question: Why Britain should stay in the EU and fight to make it better. Available here for £5 (paperback), £2.50 (e-book)

    Edited by Alan Wheatley

    Categories: Articles, Brexit, Economy, Migration

    2 Responses to “How Cameron could get on front foot with migration”

    • Cameron has a real credibility problem with voters, not just on immigration. Much as I want the Remain camp to win, I can’t help feeling that if the Brexiters win, it will largely be because of his ineptitude and his record of treating the EU issue as one of party management rather than national policy. This referendum was completely unnecessary.
      He has always put forward the idea that too immigration is a bad thing, and it has to be reduced. The target for net migration if 100,000 was never achievable without a big recession that would force tens of thousands of people (including UK citizens) to leave the country. So Cameron can’t now spin around and start making the positive case for immigration without further damaging his credibility.
      After defining himself as a Eurosceptic from the start, cutting his party’s links with other conservative parties in Europe and sitting deliberately on the sidelines on several major issues including Crimea/Ukraine, he has no foreign policy achievements to point to in Europe. Having proclaimed that the status quo of the UK’s EU membership had to be changed and deciding on an unnecessary referendum to fend off a challenge from UKIP , he set out a series of demands, not for wider reform that would benefit every member state, but exclusively to benefit the UK. When that proved unachievable, he accepted a face-saving compromise that changed very little, but only after a diplomatic pantomime during which he repeatedly threatened to ‘Vote Leave’ if he did not get what he wanted.
      Cameron now has a real problem with voters on all sides. This might not matter so much if Jeremy Corbyn was more convincing in putting the case for Remain. It is a great shame that the two biggest parties are currently lead by nincompoops, even if what they have to say makes a lot more sense than the fantasy arguments put by the other side.