Cameron's speech was a reaffirmation of faith in EU membership

By avoiding impossible demands on immigration, the PM put keeping Britain in the EU ahead of appeasing the Tory right. 

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When David Cameron delivered his speech promising an in/out EU referendum in 2013 he did so as a supporter of British membership, committed to securing modest reforms from Brussels before leading the "yes" campaign. 

But in recent weeks that stance had seemed in doubt as never before. Briefing in advance of the Prime Minister's address today on immigration suggested that he would launch a fundamental challenge to the principle of the free movement of people by advocating a cap on new arrivals or an "emergency brake". As EU leaders, most notably Angela Merkel, declared that they would reject any change of this kind it appeared that Cameron had set course for "Brexit". After failing to achieve his stated aims in the renegotiation that will take place if the Tories win next year's election, he would be forced to campaign for withdrawal or make an unconvincing case for "in". 

But today, against expectations, he pulled back from the brink. There was nothing in his speech that threatened the principle of free movement. As he declared, in a line that Ukip will repeatedly cite: "I want to be clear: Britain supports the principle of the free movement of workers." Cameron limited his demands to the far narrower issue of benefits for EU migrants: a four-year ban on new arrivals claiming in-work benefits and social housing, and on them receiving child benefit and tax credits for children living abroad. In so doing, he was seeking to create the conditions for success in his promised renegotiation, rather than failure. Unlike those proposals floated earlier, it is far from inconceivable that member states will agree to most or all of what he is demanding (and No.10 is hopeful that some may shortly signal as much). 

While seeking to appease Tory supporters of withdrawal by declaring that he rules "nothing out" if his concerns are ignored, he left those listening in no doubt about where his heart lies. The speech's peroration saw him deliver his sternest rebuke to the anti-EU camp for months. He warned, without mentioning Ukip by name, that "those who promise you simple solutions are betraying you" and that "those who say we would certainly be better off outside the EU only ever tell you part of the story."

He want on to tell the other part: "The loss of our instant access to the single market, and our right to take the decisions that regulate it ... [An end to] the automatic right for the 1.3 million British citizens who today are living and working elsewhere in Europe to do so." Rather than disowning his pro-EU address in 2013, he doubled-down on it: "I stand by every word of that speech today." 

The political challenge he faces is reconciling this pragmatic stance with the need to meet the demand from voters to reduce immigration. After a well-crafted opening passage that lauded the historic benefits of migration to the UK, he conceded: "People want government to have control over the numbers of people coming here". But by refusing to challenge the principle of free movement he is not even attempting to win it. 

He later sought to square the circle by arguing that his proposed welfare changes would have the knock-on effect of reducing new arrivals. Having tacitly acknowledged that few migrants come to Britain merely to subsist on out-of-work benefits, he is now taking aim at the state top-ups more freely available in the UK than in most other European countries. Whether or not stricter conditions would have the effect of cutting immigration is less important than the need to convince voters that it would. Having opened his speech by declaring that he was not challenging the principle of free movement, he ended it by saying that he was precisely what was he doing. "It will be argued that freedom of movement is a holy principle – one of the four cardinal principles of the EU, alongside freedom of capital, of services and of goods – and that what we are suggesting is heresy," he claimed. 

It will not take Ukip long to point out the inconsistency. Their most potent dividing line with the Tories - only we are promising to regain control of the UK's borders - remains intact. Five months ahead of the general election, and with the Tories trailing in most polls, Cameron could have sought to overcome this divide by vowing to do much the same. An "emergency brake", a cap, or a quota would have given Conservative candidates a far simpler message for the doorstep (though not necessarily an effective one).

But today, as surprising as it may seem after recent form, he put keeping Britain in the EU ahead of appeasing his party's right. For that, all pro-Europeans should be grateful. 

George Eaton is senior online editor of the New Statesman.

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