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.