Oh, David Cameron. He started out as a bright-eyed compassionate Conservative of the Notting Hill set – such a diverse area! – with a column in the Guardian and a healthy, growing following in his party. Now it’s clear the only strategy he believes will save the Tories from the Purple Peril is to retreat cravenly to the right, trotting out “tougher” talk on immigration simply for political expediency.
Not only is this morally reprehensible – perpetuating people’s fears, prejudices and misconceptions for electoral gain smacks of the divide-and-rule short-termism of more sinister regimes than our muddled-together Con-Dem coalition. It’s also politically pretty stupid.
There are reports flying around today on Cameron’s plan to unveil a new, “game-changing” immigration policy, designed to stop his nervy voters scampering over to support Ukip. And his nervy MPs, for that matter.
He is under pressure to reveal what he will demand in an attempted renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership, and how he will demand it. He has come out saying he’ll have “one last go” at EU migration curbs, and it’s reported that he will be aiming for an “emergency brake” on the number of jobseekers arriving in Britain from certain EU states. The Mail describes this plan as making control over the UK’s borders a “red line” in the renegotiation process. More on the actual details of his new policy proposal is expected to come.
There are big political problems here. Not because it’s unlikely Britain would be allowed a wholesale upheaval of the EU’s fundamental principle of the freedom of movement. And not even because concerns about immigration are just a damaging proxy for worsening, ingrained problems in employment, housing, social cohesion and education in this country. It’s because it won’t help him beat the Ukip threat.
Pushed by his right-wing backbenchers and the rise of Nigel Farage’s party, Cameron felt compelled to promise an EU referendum. This didn’t win support back from Ukip for the Tories. It led to Ukip getting stronger, with a magnificent showing in this year’s local and European elections, pinching two MPs from the Conservative party, and winning its first elected seat in the House of Commons in the process.
By banging on about immigration and the EU, Cameron is merely sending the message to voters that these are problems worth banging on about. And who are the ones who have long been promising to fix such “problems”? Ukip. And no matter how far the PM shoehorns his party into a Ukip-style right-wing mould, it’s too late and won’t ring true. He can’t out-Ukip Ukip. As one usually loyal Tory MP reveals to me, “a lot of us have been warning Number 10 about this for three or four years. It’s too late now, and saying the EU referendum will only happen in 2017, which even then will probably need a Conservative majority, means he doesn’t sound credible.”
There are other battlegrounds on which the Tories can fight in the build-up to May 2015. Cameron sounds convincing on the economy and on jobs. And even if Labour is putting the NHS at the heart of its agenda, the PM has shown – his passionate conference speech passage being an example – that he can be pretty persuasive on this too when he wants to be. One rather baffled party source tells me, “he won’t be talking much about the NHS again, but it really is something that’s central to what he thinks is important.”
A criticism often levelled at our Prime Minister is that he’s a PR man with little principle – a view I’ve heard even his once-supportive coalition partner, Nick Clegg, privately voices. Well, there’s not much principle in trying to out-Ukip Ukip, and this could spell the end not only for Cameron but for the key convictions of his party.