WITH the referendum less than a month away it is sometimes easy to forget that much of the rest of the UK’s political establishment is actually beginning to focus more on the general election, which itself is a mere nine months off.
One of the key issues in that election will be immigration, and already there is a kind of bidding war between the Tories and Labour over who can be tougher on people coming in from abroad.
Why? Well, on the doorsteps of many constituencies in England and Wales the fears over the effect of mass immigration – its impact on driving down wages, the pressure on housing and so forth – are becoming a serious concern among many voters.
In last year’s Eastleigh by-election, Ukip had a surge into second place, almost winning on an anti-immigration ticket by raising fears about Romanians and Bulgarians. And this was in a constituency with a miniscule rate of immigration.
But Eastleigh and places like Essex highlight why the Ukip factor is significant. There is a genuine fear among the Tories in particular that they will lose seats to Ukip if they do not become tougher on immigration.
As a result, David Cameron has been announcing measures like restricting access to social and health services, trying to close the borders and generally making it harder for foreigners to come here.
Ignoring the evidence from places like Scotland and London that a tough immigration stance damages the economy, a moral dilemma has now returned to the debate: Britain’s proud tradition of providing a haven and sanctuary for those seeking political asylum and fleeing persecution. This is being tested by the millions fleeing the extremist Islamic State (IS) in Iraq which is forcing Christians to change faith, beheading opponents and committing many other atrocities.
Mr Cameron is now under pressure from bishops and others to open the UK’s doors to the Iraqi Christians in particular, who face appalling consequences from IS rule.
What should the Prime Minister do? Should he do the decent thing and allow in thousands of asylum seekers to save their lives? Or should he listen to those on his backbenches and in his ministerial team who do not want to open the UK’s doors to a surge of immigrants, no matter the reason, for fear of it boosting Ukip at the general election and costing the Tories power?
Such is the moral dilemma of leadership in the political world, but it is one which, as the Syria and Iraq crises deepen, will be troubling Mr Cameron much more over the next nine months running up to the election.