Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser

Article

David Cameron´s hot autumn
La Stampa - September 2, 2015

How awkward it is to have ministers who speak freely to the media using words you cannot control. That is the eternal truth for prime ministers everywhere, but certainly it is the way life feels right now to David Cameron, Britain’s Conservative prime minister. Delighted as he doubtless is at the prospect that his opponents in the Labour Party look likely on September 12th to elect a far-left rebel, Jeremy Corbyn, as their new leader. Mr Cameron is realising that his fiercest opponents lie not just in his own party, but even his own government.

            That is the right way to understand the statements on August 30th by Theresa May, our “Home Secretary”, which means minister for the interior, about how she would like to restrict the right of free movement into the UK by other European Union citizens only to those who have already found jobs. She argued that such a reform would merely restore the principle of free movement to its “original sense”, a sense that only Eurosceptics interpret in that way.

What it would actually do, however, is hugely restrict the movement of Italians, Germans, French, Spanish and others to London, since they wouldn’t be able to come to London to look for jobs, nor indeed presumably to set up their own small companies (as many do). But don’t worry. This will not in fact happen, not unless Britain votes in its famous referendum in 2016 or 2017 to leave the EU.

Mr Cameron and his office had to immediately “clarify” the comments of his own senior Cabinet minister to assure other EU governments that the only restriction he is seeking is on the right of migrants to claim welfare benefits. He has long ago promised Chancellor Angela Merkel that he understands that Britain would stand no chance of altering the basic rules of free movement.

So why such a rebellious comment by Mrs May? And why cannot the prime minister who won a surprise general election triumph only four months ago control his own government? The answer to both lies in the very small parliamentary majority (12 seats) held by the Conservative government. Mrs May, and Eurosceptics like her, want to remind Mr Cameron that they exist, and that their support for him cannot be taken for granted.

As a result, a triumphant prime minister, presiding over what is currently the EU’s strongest economy in terms of economic growth and low unemployment, is entering the autumn political season looking weak and uncertain. Such an impression will only get stronger later this month, as Britain’s annual season of party conferences get under way, giving plentiful opportunities for opponents of the EU and of immigration to get their ideas into the media. And that will include some Cabinet members.

This is also making, and will continue to make, Britain a rather unhelpful and in my view shamefully ungenerous participant in discussions about Europe’s refugee crisis. In 2014, the UK took only 5% of the EU’s total number of new asylum-seekers, whereas back in 2008 it took 10% (though of a smaller total). In the latest opinion polls, the broad issue of immigration has overtaken the economy and jobs to be ranked by the public as their most important worry. And in the public mind, no real distinction is made between Syrian refugees, Bulgarian construction workers and Italian software engineers.

All are immigrants, contributing to a feeling that Britain is becoming a more crowded country. This has been made worse by the fact that despite strong economic growth, the wages of ordinary Britons have only recently begun to rise, making it tempting to blame competition from immigrants for low incomes.

This could change as the economic recovery spreads further, helped by falling oil prices and even, perhaps, by some economic recovery in the Eurozone. But it is unlikely to change fast enough to help David Cameron get through his hot autumn. He has to combat the opponents inside his own government, while at the same time negotiating reforms with Chancellor Merkel and other EU leaders that will both make the EU work better and persuade Britons to vote to stay in it. Neither task is going to be easy.


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