Refugee U-turn: PM outflanked by Ed Miliband and Farage
It’s one thing having Miliband stake out the moral high ground, quite another having Farage on your back
NIGEL FARAGE, the Ukip leader, should not be allowed "to set the moral compass for Britain", Sir Menzies Campbell, the former Lib Dem leader, said on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning as he welcomed David Cameron's U-turn to allow a small number of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees into Britain.
Having Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, dictate the moral high ground is one thing, it seems: having Farage, leader of the anti-immigration party, saying we should take in Syrians is quite another – even if he did later modify his position by suggesting only Christians be allowed in.
The refugees – possibly up to 500 - will be mainly children, women and victims of torture. According to the BBC, they will be given temporary visas allowing them to stay for at least three years. They will then be viewed on a case-by-case basis.
The U-turn became inevitable when Cameron was outflanked by Ed Miliband over the issue at Prime Minister's Questions a week ago - not for the first time when it comes to the Syrian conflict. It was Miliband who led the way last year in preventing Parliament from endorsing a British military intervention.
Up until PMQs last Wednesday, Cameron was still insisting that it was better for Syrian refugees to be helped in their own region, rather than airlifting them to Britain. Britain has donated £600 million in aid for Syrians, making it the second biggest donor in the world after the US. It has given more than the rest of the EU put together.
But the previous weekend, immigration minister Mark Harper had enraged some MPs by saying taking in refugees from Syria would have only a "token impact". And with that wise old bird Menzies Campbell leading the Lib Dem charge against the government stance, the pressure was on.
Miliband argued that sending aid to displaced Syrians was not enough: Britain should be taking in refugees too. Under the Labour leader’s badgering, Cameron agreed that the government would look at extreme cases.
This afternoon, Theresa May, the Home Secretary, will announce the scale of the numbers that Britain will take. Her statement is timed to avoid a government defeat in a subsequent debate initiated by Labour to humiliate the coalition into action, though there are rumours that following the climbdown Labour may not actually press it to a vote at the end of the debate.
A number of senior Tory MPs had warned they could not support the government if it continued to hold out against taking. They included Margot James, a Parliamentary private secretary to a minister and a member of the Downing Street policy board, Mark Pritchard, a former secretary of the 1922 Committee which represents all backbench Tory MPs, and James Gray.
Yvette Cooper, Labour's shadow home secretary, said today it would have been "immoral" for the government not to have made its U-turn.
There is still a sharp dividing line between the parties, however. Labour wants the coalition to do more than take in a few extreme cases: it wants Britain to sign up to join the refugee airlift by the UN who have called for western countries to take 30,000 refugees.
But the Tory leadership, ever aware of the support it is losing to Ukip because of immigration (whatever Farage might have said on this particular subject), are anxious not to commit themselves to large numbers, with no end in sight to the Syrian conflict.
Tory MP Brooks Newmark was speaking for many in his party when he told the Today programme that Britain should not allow its immigration policy to be "dictated" by the UN, who could tell Britain who it should accept and how many.