Cameron's speech is ingenious – but it will change nothing

Discovering his mission? Cameron's ingenious speech will help him, but not the country
Discovering his mission? Cameron's ingenious speech will help him, but not the country
Ian Dunt By

Apart from his promise of an EU referendum, there has never been a David Cameron speech with a longer build up. For months Downing Street has dribbled out little bits and pieces of what will be said in the Midlands today. We were once told there would be an 'emergency brake' option on EU migration. The prime minister even floated the idea of trying to end free movement in the single market. None of this came to pass.

Somewhere along the line – and he should really have known this in the first place – Cameron realised Germany and the others would rather see Britain leave the EU than sacrifice freedom of movement. He couldn't have won a pre-referendum negotiation on it and would have been forced into spearheading the 'out' campaign. He stepped back from the brink.

Instead, the Foreign Office has been busy touring European capitals giving them a look at today's speech. EU ambassadors have been invited to see and discuss it in advance. Cameron has even refrained from criticising his old foe Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU president, in order to get him onside. He and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, will both be able to support this. Germany is even likely to welcome it, secretly or otherwise.


Germany and Angela Merkel are likely to support the proposals

Cameron wants to block EU migrants claiming in-work benefits until they’ve been in the UK for four years, alongside social housing and the payment of child benefits and tax credits to children living outside the country. EU migrants will have six months to find a job when they get to the UK.

The policy has been tailored to be as harsh as possible while still capable of gaining European support. In that sense it is ingenious. It goes as far down the road as is realistic, allowing him to sound tough on a policy proposal he might actually achieve. EU social security rules will need to be rewritten and perhaps some treaties alongside them. It will lend Cameron a narrative and sense of forward momentum. It is remarkable that it has taken the prime minister so long to discover the realistic limits of his power, but as it happens this is a winnable fight and one which will probably do him some good politically.

It allows Cameron to address the concerns which have proved so useful for Nigel Farage while distancing himself from him. After all, these policies are defined by the fact they are realistic. Cameron self-defines against Farage not by adopting different politics, but by appearing as a man who can get things done. It will also be supported by Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who are both wary of looking soft on immigration. In fact they're already calling for similar measures, albiet not for four years.

The policy is an acknowledgement of the fact that people come here to work. For years we've heard scaremongering about migrants coming over here to scrounge off the welfare state. If that was the case, in-work benefits wouldn't need to be targetted.

Cameron's speech is designed to differentiate him from Nigel Farage in style, if not goals

It also sidesteps the biggest problem Downing Street has found when trying to cut immigration: economic self-harm. The government has been desperate to live up to Cameron's foolish pledge to cut immigration to the "tens of thousands" but failed to do so because it would mean crippling the economy. The banks, financial services and creative industries rely on immigration, as must be clear to anyone walking down a London street. This measure targets the low-paid and mostly leaves these more fortunate professionals unaffected.

Considering the way he has boxed himself in, it is as smart an avenue as Cameron could have picked. Most of the coverage is likely to recognise this and be broadly positive. Westminster journalism tends to evaluate policies in terms of how they affect the career of the leader in question and on that basis will judge this speech generously.

But let's be clear: in five years' time it will have done nothing to address public concern about immigration. Sure, it will take money from the roughly 300,000 EU nationals in the UK who receive tax credits.  It might even stop some from coming over. Analysts say the cut would return them to a salary more like what they receive in their home country. That's true, but many will still want to come here because the opportunities for advancement are that much greater. They may not migrate for immediate economic reasons, but they still will for aspirational reasons. This is something Britain should rightfully be proud of, but that is not currently the way the country looks at things.

Even if it does chip away at EU migration it will not change the debate. We will be in the same place in five years' time, because the debate over migration is not really about migrants. It is about domestic workers feeling the system is stacked against them.

Finance and banking will be largely unaffected by the move

The Tory response – seemingly to every problem – is to protect the rich and target the poor. Be it welfare, immigration, legal aid or any other policy area, the instinct is always the same: remove state support but retain services for those who can afford to pay for them. The targeting of in-work benefits is a classic example.

The economy has been rebalanced toward low wages and minimal job security. Last month, the first warnings signs emerged that income tax receipts to the Treasury would be substantially lower than planned. That should be surprising. After all, employment is going up. The trouble is the employment is of such low quality. So many people are earning such low salaries that they do not even reach the point at which they need to pay income tax. This low pay is also driving up the tax credits bill, which has always been a public subsidy for the private sector to pay poverty wages. And unsurprisingly, this is precisely the area Cameron has targeted. He does not consider making firms pay decent wages. He considers only removing the state support.

The other area is social housing. Again, the only real solution to this problem is to build more social housing. But this is against Tory party interests. It would reduce the value of housing in general and hurt homeowners, who are more likely to be Tory voters. Instead, George Osborne has done the precise opposite and put the economy at risk so well-off people can get on the housing ladder.

Making more social housing would likely reduce house prices, which would financially penalise many Tory supporters

It's these economic factors which create the febrile political climate for critics of immigration. Instead of discussing economic policy or equality of opportunity, they can engage in the much easier and more emotive practice of pointing at fellow workers and saying: "Blame them." It is a political tactic as old as society itself - a form of divide and conquer. It is much more effective to make people blame each other rather than risk them blaming the system.

Cameron's speech will do him some good, but it won't do this country any good. In five year's time people will still be struggling to get by in a brutal economic system and the most cynical of us will still suggest we blame our neighbour.

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