Leaders: Lib Dems may have saved Cameron

Vince Cable said the Tories' proposed cap on immigration would be 'illegal'. Picture: Getty
Vince Cable said the Tories' proposed cap on immigration would be 'illegal'. Picture: Getty
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WHATEVER plans Prime Minister David Cameron entertained on immigration curbs to fend off the political challenge from the UK Independence Party look to have been dealt a heavy blow by his Liberal Democrat coalition partners.

First, Lib Dem leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg declared there should not be further restrictions on the freedom of movement. Business Secretary and Lib Dem Vince Cable followed with a statement that a cap would be “illegal and impossible to implement”.

As if all this was not galling enough for the Conservatives, the Bulgarian president Rosen Plevneliev weighed in with a finger-wagging warning to Mr Cameron that he should not play on people’s fears over immigration. “Isolating Britain and damaging Britain’s reputation is not the right history to write …” Such remarks could scarcely be more calculated to light the fuse of Conservative anger and frustration ahead of a much feared influx of Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants from January.

But bizarre though it may seem, the Lib Dems may have done the Conservatives a favour. It is as well that divisions have burst to the surface now and that searching questions have been raised over the Conservatives’ cap proposals before they gain a spurious credibility. One of the reasons behind the rise in support for Ukip has been a loss of trust in previous tough-sounding rhetoric on the control of immigration. Concern has been fed by the large numbers of migrants who came to the UK after the previous EU enlargement, dwarfing official assurances at the time. But it is by no means clear there will be a repeat on anything like this scale. Policy is proceeding on the basis of untested speculation.

Then there are the considerable legal and constitutional uncertainties on the attempt to impose a cap. These need to be addressed. Any move to impose a cap on inward migrant numbers while the UK remains an EU member would without doubt be subject to legal challenge and one which would in all likelihood be lengthy and acrimonious. This could open an armoury of explosive munitions for Ukip.

Controlling immigration is a complex issue requiring sensitivity and subtlety if a common way forward is to be found. A panic, knee-jerk reaction would be dismissive of the formidable evidence from many UK employers testifying to the benefits and desirability of inward migration.

However, there remains real concern over “benefit tourists”. While in the majority of cases inward migrants are seeking productive employment, some will seek to take undue advantage of our benefit system. It should be possible to reach some agreement on safeguards to help ensure this does not occur. Fractious though this route may prove, it is surely preferable to the alternative: Conservatives seeking electoral favour on a tough-sounding policy platform that disintegrates at first contact with political reality.

A bite more than it can chew

FREE school meals for children in the early years of primary school: what’s not to like?

It is one of those oft-heard election promises with populist appeal that is impossible to question without seeming mean and flint-hearted.

Now the Educational Institute of Scotland, the country’s largest teaching union, has joined calls for the Scottish Government to commit to free meals for pupils in primaries one to three (providing, of course, it is not funded out of teacher wages and salaries). It argues that providing free school meals is one of the best ways of improving the health and wellbeing of those from disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as reducing the attainment gap with those from affluent homes.

Seductive as such claims may be, the SNP administration is in a box. After the policy was introduced down south and money effectively allocated for this in Scotland through the Barnett formula, the administration would seem to have an obligation to bring in the equivalent measure.

But can it? Having failed on the flagship policy of class sizes, it seems unlikely that funds would be allocated to a lesser priority at this stage. Yet if free meals are not introduced, political opponents would have a stick with which to beat the administration. And it would inevitably spill over into the referendum battle. Would the SNP not pledge to introduce free school meals on independence? Indeed, having pledged so many other benefits, could the SNP afford not to introduce free meals lest it appear that staying in the UK would be beneficial?

It all comes back to the politics of priorities: whatever the outcome of the referendum, the administration needs to operate amid competing proposals to address well-documented educational needs and within funding constraints. “Free” it isn’t.