Mark Thomas imagines a UK without migrants

Michael Howard is going so far to the right on immigration that he'll soon decide to make his ideas

The best thing that could happen to resolve Britain's immigration issues would be for all immigrants to leave Britain. They should not tell anyone of their plans. But late at night, while white Britain is tucked up safely in bed, they should sneak out quietly. Find a good vantage point. Sit back. And watch Britain grind to a halt.

Watch as the health service collapses, building sites stagnate, hotels implode and schools panic as they frantically call up every supply teacher that ever uttered breath in a classroom. I estimate that it should take less than a week for Britain to issue a formal apology to every migrant, though we should allow for six months if the immigration service is posting out the letters.

That immigration and asylum should be such important topics in the run-up to a general election campaign shows a huge failure on Labour's part. Many Britons believe the proportion of immigrants in this country to be between 22 and 24 per cent. In fact, the figure is roughly 4-5 per cent. So either immigrants are all doing the work of five people, creating the impression that there are more of them, or most white British people are hallucinating and walk around shopping centres thinking, "Zulus! Thousands of 'em!" Or it means that Britain is still a petty little xenophobic nation, where people's vision of reality is warped with bigotry.

It is to this gallery that Michael Howard, the Tory leader, and Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, now play. We expect it of Howard - he was always going to work the crime and immigration field, rather than health and the economy where no one takes him seriously. He was on the TV news recently, attending a police raid on a drug house, possibly looking for people stoned enough to vote for him. The cops charged into the building, while Howard hung around in a fluorescent jacket marked "POLICE", with the demeanour of a kid on a "bring your children to work" day. Unfortunately, no one in the drug house mistook Howard for a burglar and battered him to death in defence of their property.

You might not think that there is much room to the right of Howard, after his promise to put quotas on asylum-seekers and his talk of a fantasy island where they would be held until their claims could be processed. But if his rants play well with the electorate Howard will continue to tack to the right. Eventually, he will act retrospectively and deport himself.

However, the past few weeks have been defining ones for Clarke. I don't think we need a DNA test to know he is David Blunkett's true son; there's no mistaking David's "little lad". Not content with keeping former detainees at Belmarsh Prison under house arrest, or trying to deport them (with a promise that they won't be tortured) to such human-rights-loving countries as Egypt and Algeria, Clarke has now decided to play with Howard on immigration and asylum.

Sir Bill Morris, the black former trade union leader, is right to describe the process as one of a "bidding war" to get tough on immigrants and asylum-seekers. But it is a war of Labour's own creation. It was Jack Straw and Mike O'Brien, Straw's junior at the Home Office, who first started punting the phrase "bogus asylum-seekers". It was Straw and O'Brien who introduced laws that forced asylum-seekers (who are forbidden from working) into selling any possessions they might have over the value of £200 for a single man, before they could claim benefit. The value of that benefit was only 70 per cent of the value of everyone else's, and that was set by Straw and O'Brien. They started this ball rolling.

Labour insists that it is important to have a sensible debate about immigration and asylum. So why did the government persuade the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the British Trades Union Congress to delay publication of a report that highlights the abuse of migrant workers in the UK? Forced Labour and Migration to the UK was due to be published last September but, according to the Guardian, a senior TUC official said: "ILO was threatened with funding cuts by the Department for Work and Pensions if the report were to be published."

The report apparently highlights the exploitative charges levied on migrant labour by agencies and employers. Migrant nurses are told they will have to pay £2,000 if they want to quit their jobs, or they are charged £3,000 for registration. Note that nurses form the second group in Clarke's proposed points system, which will decide entry and rights, while low-skilled migrants form a third group. Doctors and IT specialists are in an elite group that gets maximum points. So now we have a class system for immigrants.

In the muddied world of Clarke and Howard, asylum-seekers and economic migrants amount to the same thing. "They" are out to rip us off and to exploit "our" system. So a report which shows migrants being exploited - well, that sort of thing just doesn't fit the image.