Why Clegg is abandoning the Lib Dems' "amnesty" for illegal immigrants

The policy is cited by party activists as one of the main reasons voters turned against the party in 2010 after "Cleggmania".

Nick Clegg's decision to abandon the Lib Dems' policy of "earned citizenship" for illegal immigrants is an admission of political defeat. In his speech on immigration at The Centre Forum, Clegg said nothing to suggest that he believed the policy was wrong in principle, rather that it "risked undermining public confidence" by appearing to "reward those who have broken the law". He added that he was "no longer convinced" that it should be included in the next Lib Dem manifesto, a clear signal that it will be discarded before 2015. 

Among Lib Dem MPs, there is a pragmatic acceptance that the policy, which is supported by just 25 per cent of voters (see Lord Ashcroft's recent poll), was not sustainable. As the final leaders' debate in 2010 showed (see video), it made it too easy for the Conservatives and Labour to portray the party as "soft" on immigration. After Clegg's support for an "amnesty" was highlighted by David Cameron and Gordon Brown, party activists reported a significant backlash. Now, with both Cameron and Ed Miliband toughening their stances on immigration, Clegg could not afford to be left behind again.

The hope among the Lib Dems is that their new "zero tolerance" approach to illegal immigration will make it easier win the argument for a more liberal approach to legal migration. As Clegg rightly pointed out in his speech, Vince Cable's attack on the Tories' net migration target does not put the pair at odds since it has never been official government policy.

Nick Clegg takes questions from journalists after making a speech on immigration at The Centre Forum in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Ignored by the media, the Liberal Democrats are experiencing a revival

The crushed Liberals are doing particularly well in areas that voted Conservative in 2015 - and Remain in 2016. 

The Liberal Democrats had another good night last night, making big gains in by-elections. They won Adeyfield West, a seat they have never held in Dacorum, with a massive swing. They were up by close to the 20 points in the Derby seat of Allestree, beating Labour into second place. And they won a seat in the Cotswolds, which borders the vacant seat of Witney.

It’s worth noting that they also went backwards in a safe Labour ward in Blackpool and a safe Conservative seat in Northamptonshire.  But the overall pattern is clear, and it’s not merely confined to last night: the Liberal Democrats are enjoying a mini-revival, particularly in the south-east.

Of course, it doesn’t appear to be making itself felt in the Liberal Democrats’ poll share. “After Corbyn's election,” my colleague George tweeted recently, “Some predicted Lib Dems would rise like Lazarus. But poll ratings still stuck at 8 per cent.” Prior to the local elections, I was pessimistic that the so-called Liberal Democrat fightback could make itself felt at a national contest, when the party would have to fight on multiple fronts.

But the local elections – the first time since 1968 when every part of the mainland United Kingdom has had a vote on outside of a general election – proved that completely wrong. They  picked up 30 seats across England, though they had something of a nightmare in Stockport, and were reduced to just one seat in the Welsh Assembly. Their woes continued in Scotland, however, where they slipped to fifth place. They were even back to the third place had those votes been replicated on a national scale.

Polling has always been somewhat unkind to the Liberal Democrats outside of election campaigns, as the party has a low profile, particularly now it has just eight MPs. What appears to be happening at local by-elections and my expectation may be repeated at a general election is that when voters are presented with the option of a Liberal Democrat at the ballot box they find the idea surprisingly appealing.

Added to that, the Liberal Democrats’ happiest hunting grounds are clearly affluent, Conservative-leaning areas that voted for Remain in the referendum. All of which makes their hopes of a good second place in Witney – and a good night in the 2017 county councils – look rather less farfetched than you might expect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.