Cameron’s election speechwriter slams immigration cap

There's a punchy Evening Standard column from Ian Birrell today challenging the government's immigration cap as "the sort of gesture politics that makes some sense in opposition but turns out to be nonsense in government". The author might claim to know something about the pressure to make such political gestures, having been David Cameron's speechwriter during the 2010 election campaign.

There’s a punchy Evening Standard column from Ian Birrell today challenging the government’s immigration cap as “the sort of gesture politics that makes some sense in opposition but turns out to be nonsense in government”. The author might claim to know something about the pressure to make such political gestures, having been David Cameron’s speechwriter during the 2010 election campaign.

Birrell recently wrote about his enthusiasm for the big society and his experience of writing the major Cameron speech which tried to explain what it was all about.

Today, he writes in the Standard about why the government’s immigration cap is “daft”:

Why are we turning away the next generation of entrepreneurs, especially when private-sector expansion is so crucial amid public spending cuts?

The reason is simple: because the Conservatives, spooked by loud voices in the media and on the Right, came up with the concept of an arbitrary cap on numbers coming into this country from outside the EU to make it appear they had a policy on immigration. It will bring the figure for net annual migration below 100,000, they said, while fudging precise details.

It was the sort of gesture politics that makes some sense in opposition but turns out to be nonsense in government. Ministers say they get endless complaints about the policy whenever they meet businesspeople. It is unfortunate that the Liberal Democrats failed to use their bargaining powers to get it abandoned; they should have insisted it was scrapped in return for their humiliation over the proposed rise in university tuition fees.

Instead we are stuck with this daft idea, which has been grafted on to Labour’s similarly foolish points-based system of entry.

Clearly, Birrell is very much writing in his own voice, no longer that of the prime minister.

The former deputy editor of The Independent was never a member of the Tory tribe, and was always very much on the liberal wing of the Cameron tent. Birrell has also written about how his personal friendship with David Cameron was strengthened by their shared experience of caring for disabled children.

Very few voices in government would be as laissez-faire on immigration as Birrell, as can be seen from his trenchant criticism of the last Labour government for also being too restrictive in its immigration policy.

However, business pressure over the immigration cap issue has been reflected in business secretary Vince Cable’s private and public advocacy of the dangers of a cap, and was also reflected, if not resolved, in David Cameron’s speech to the CBI:

“As we control our borders and bring immigration to a manageable level, we will not impede you from attracting the best talent from around the world.”

That is a characteristically Cameroonian sentence of deliberately unfathomable ambiguity, carefully constructed to simultaneously reassure both business audiences and party audiences with opposing concerns about whether the government’s immigration restrictions will prove too tight, or not tight enough. How to implement the sentiment in a workable permanent cap is going to cause more headaches in Whitehall.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by becoming a Left Foot Forward Supporter today.