The Conservative leader and British Prime Minister David Cameron’s grasp of the dark political arts is not gone. Last Friday he gave a long-awaited speech setting out his proposals on managing immigration from other EU countries better. It received generally favourable coverage. And, before anybody had a chance to think through what he had said, the story was muscled out by a series of announcements about public spending commitments, in advance of tomorrow’s Autumn Statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. If this goes according to plan, Mr Cameron has redefined the political centre ground at a stroke. Will he succeed?
In the preceding weeks, not coincidentally while the Conservatives were trying to fight off a by-lection challenge from Ukip, various suggestions had been floated about what the speech might say. The most eye-catching was some sort of quota system for accepting intra-EU migrants. This drew much criticism from other EU leaders. In the event this idea was dropped. Instead Mr Cameron proposed to limit their access to benefits and tax credits, including those for both those in work, and those out of work. Migrants would not be entitled to these benefits unless they had been resident for a full four years.
In terms of pure politics this was astute. More moderate commentators were relieved that the quota idea, and its immediate confrontation with other EU leaders, was buried. Limiting access to benefits, on the other hand, sounds a bit like what the opposition Labour Party, and even the Liberal Democrat coalition partners, were suggesting. But the time limit and scope was much greater than anything these parties proposed – pleasing the more hawkish commentators, especially in the right-wing press, who are the main attack-dogs in British politics. Sensibly he left the matter of access to free health services under the NHS untouched. Many older Britons have retired to Spain, where they get access to that country’s health services for free; indeed Britain seems to be exporting oldsters almost as fast as it importing youngsters – something the government will not wish to discourage.
And so Mr Cameron will try to present himself as the voice of sweet reason and moderation as the General Election approaches. On the one hand we have the liberals and the left, who are ignoring the British public’s anxieties over immigration. On the other we have the swivel-eyed loons of the Ukip, who demand must more drastic measures, including departure from the EU, which would do severe harm to the country’s economic prospects. Mr Cameron does the faintly plaintive, sweet moderation act pretty well. He praised the contribution of immigrants in his speech, and simply suggested that the country had been having a little too much of a good thing.
And the bulk of the British public may well agree. Mr Cameron’s suggestion that we renegotiate our EU treaties and put the result to an in-out referendum sounded similarly sensible and centrist. That the political centre seems to be drifting so far towards muddled populism might alarm liberals like me, but this is reality.
But there are problems. The most immediate is whether his own fractious Conservative Party will buy it. Many party workers, and a lot of MPs, actually agree with Ukip about immigration and the EU. Mr Cameron’s policy may sound like a cop out to them. If they start to get vocal, the Tories will look divided, and their credibility will fade. There were mutterings over the weekend, but we will have to wait and see on that. His party did allow Mr Cameron a free hand before the 2010 to define it as more moderate than it really was. If they have any sense they will do so this time. If the British public has any sense they won’t fall for it.
The political class are obsessed with the General Election due in May 2015. Any dates after this only matter in terms of manoeuvres designed to secure an advantage at that point. And in that light, divisions within the Tory party are Mr Cameron’s main threat on the issue. It is looking beyond that date that the real un-wisdom of Mr Cameron’s stance starts to emerge.
The first point is that it still leaves a problem with the EU renegotiation. While there is some scope to limit access to benefits under current EU treaties (by moving towards a contributory principle), changes of this nature will apparently need treaty changes. Mr Cameron had calculated that the EU would need treaty changes anyway to secure the struggling Eurozone – so adding in a few goodies for his benefit would not be too onerous. But the EU’s leaders are heading in a different direction. With anti-EU populists on the rise across the continent, leaders want to avoid any treaty change, since these are likely to be held hostage to referendum results. Unfortunately voting No to a treaty change has not proved fatal to any EU country so far – it has simply improved negotiating leverage. Going through this process just to save Mr Cameron’s bacon may well be too much. This takes the country a further step towards the EU exit, something that Mr Cameron seems to want to avoid.
The second point is that this plan does not actually address any major economic stress point. Access to Britain’s benefit system does not seem to be a major draw for intra-EU migrants – though it may be a stronger incentive for migrants from outside the EU. The British public will not notice a diminution of EU migrant numbers. The policy is designed to address tabloid exaggerations, not reality. The tabloids will simply move on to some other nonsense. All that pain for no real gain.
Still practical solutions to the country’s problems count for little in the current political debate. The populist right blame the EU and immigrants for the country’s problems. The left blames some combination of bankers, capitalists, greedy rich people or deluded neoliberals. We may suspect that our problems lie deeper – with demographics, globalisation and the development of technology. We may also suspect that the proffered solutions of left and right will make things worse not better. But no politician, campaign group or tabloid journalist seems to care. That is the real scandal of Britain’s political class.