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.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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