May’s cynical attempt to create division will lead to racist attacks on our streets

When the immigration restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian workers are dropped on January 1st, almost nothing will happen.

Legions of Romanian beggars will not descend on your high street, Bulgarian hordes will not occupy your local job centre and your local children's playground will not be turned into a temporary encampment for swan-eating immigrants.

There will almost certainly be a significant rise in people coming in from these two countries. But there is no reason to believe this rise will be any greater than that seen from any of the previous EU countries allowed these rights to work in the UK.

The rise will be concentrated in urban areas well-used to successive waves of immigration and before long these new immigrants will be successfully absorbed into the UK. The net result will be a slight extra strain on public services, balanced out by a slight but much-needed boost to Britain's economy.

And yet, if you've been listening to warnings coming out the Home Office, you'll have got a very different impression.

Over recent months, Theresa May has done everything she can to hype up the "threat" posed by Romanians and Bulgarians. Barely a week has gone by without some new announcement of a crackdown, with everyone from the NHS to the police being dragged into her circle of panic.

Not since the days of the millennium bug has no much hysteria been spread, to such little ends.

But while in 1999 the government connived in the panic over the millennium bug due to their ignorance, fears over immigration from Bulgarian and Romania are being quite deliberately raised for political gain.

Public fears over immigration have long been well out of step with the actual impact immigrants have. Polls have shown that most people believe Britain has been overrun by foreigners and the unemployed, with some parts of the press taking a more and more hysterical approach to covering the issue.

Rather than try to counter these dangerous beliefs, Theresa May has connived to heighten them for political gain. But this is not just an abstract political exercise. The direct result of this climate of panic caused by May and others will be the very real suffering of people in this country.

As a direct result of May's political decision, immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania and even people who might just look a bit like them will be abused and assaulted on Britain's streets. School children will be bullied and communities will be divided.

And it may not even work. While polls show immigration is a rising and major concern among the public, it has not historically been a big driver of votes to the Conservative party. Tory campaign chief Lynton Crosby's last immigration-dominated campaign for the party in 2005 was a dismal failure. And his resurrection of the same themes this year has coincided with a rise in support for Nigel Farage and Ukip instead.

Of course this may change. Crosby has successfully used fears over immigration in the past to win elections and he may yet do so again. But if he does then it will be at a big cost.

Theresa May was one of the first people in the Conservatives to realise the party needed to change its attitudes in order to win back power. Her decision to abandon this principle once in government should be a source of real and abiding shame.