In Depth

Cameron’s migrant plan: ‘one last go’ or pie in the sky?

PM’s biographer pours scorn on his proposal to put emergency brake on EU immigrants in bid to halt Ukip

The Mole

Avoid Rochester high street this weekend: you risk being crushed by Tory MPs and ministers pounding the pavements five-abreast trying to secure votes in the upcoming by-election battle against Ukip. Above all, beware of anyone claiming they are Prime Minister and making wild promises. 

David Cameron was in Rochester yesterday – on the first of five threatened visits - promising to slam an “emergency brake” on immigration.

Answering rumours floated in The Times that morning that he had a "game-changing" proposal on tackling EU immigration up his sleeve, the PM said he was prepared to have "one last go" at negotiating a deal with the rest of the EU on reducing immigration. 

Cameron’s biographer Isabel Oakeshott poured a torrent of cold water on the promise last night on BBC TV’s Question Time which would have had Ukip leader Nigel Farage cheering the television screen in his local pub.

Oakeshott, who left the Sunday Times to research the biography sponsored by Cameron’s nemesis Lord Ashcroft, said she was “bemused” to hear Cameron talking about “one last go” on immigration.

“I don’t think he has had one first go about this,” scoffed Oakeshott. “It’s pie in the sky.” She helpfully pointed out that Cameron had fought the 2010 general election on a promise to reduce immigration to tens of thousands – and yet net migration was running at 250,000.

“It doesn’t give you any confidence anything can be done next time,” she said. “You cannot put an emergency brake on it because the freedom of movement is a defining principle of the EU.” 

Cameron's promise took him a step closer to the guarantee his eurosceptic MPs have been demanding – a commitment to pulling Britain out of Europe if he fails to win ground in his negotiations, and which he has so far flatly refused to give.

In the short term, there is only one purpose behind Cameron’s “one last go” pledge – a desperate bid to stop Tory voters deserting to Ukip in the 20 November Rochester and Strood by-election caused by Tory MP Mark Reckless’s defection.

Some locals have grown increasingly alarmed at the flood of immigrants to towns in Kent from the ports at Dover and Folkestone. This, along with the growing disillusionment with the main parties, helps explain why the most recent poll put Ukip nine points ahead in Rochester, making Reckless a dead cert to win the seat unless Cameron can come up with a game-changing tactic.

With the by-election still five weeks away, and with so much at stake given the momentum Ukip might enjoy with two by-election victories in a row, there are sure to be more promises – or half-promises - to come.

The Times, for instance, raises the possibility today of Cameron promising to whip Tory MPs to vote NO in next month’s crucial vote to rejoin the European arrest warrant.

Cameron could also try to stop the Ukip bandwagon with this one: according to Phil Webster, the Times’s online political editor, ministers are looking at plans to strip migrant workers of up to £100 million a week in tax credits.

Rochester and Strood voters might wish to push the PM further. As by-election sweeteners go, such measures hardly match Harold Wilson’s promise to build the Humber Bridge to win the Hull North by-election in January 1966.

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