David Cameron's Immigration Speech: Hot On Politics, Not So Hot On Policy

He won the general election more two weeks ago, but David Cameron proved he was still very much in campaign mode today as he sought to explain away the jaw-droppingly awful migration stats.

With hundreds of staff lining four floors of the Home Office's glass atrium to witness his Big Speech, the event felt uncannily like one of the many Cameron Directs that he's been holding in countless workplaces from Asda to JCB.

The speech delivered his big themes of reform, but it was clear from the Q&A (sadly only with journalists not Home Office rank and file) that this was as much about the politics as the policy.

It was striking that Theresa May, in her introduction, and then Cameron himself repeatedly blamed the Lib Dems for stopping the Tories in making progress on their infamous target of getting net migration under 100,000 a year.

One minister pointed out to me earlier today that Vince Cable had scuppered moves to get landlords to conduct checks on illegal migrants, gutting the policy so much that only one pilot was given the go ahead.

Blame game: David Cameron, speaking at the Home Office in London today, claimed the Lib Dems had blocked reforms to immigration

And the PM widened that message in a clear attempt to scapegoat the Lib Dems with at least some of the blame for dire figures today.

With Nick Clegg's party still reeling from the polling day pummelling it got, Cameron felt it was time to keep pressing hard on his opponent's bruises.

And with UKIP still in a mess after Nigel Farage's 'UnResignation' and Labour distracted by its leadership race, the Tory high command wants to be seen grappling with immigration on its own terms.

However, the sheer scale of today's net migration figures - the second highest on record - ensured that today had to be a damage limitation exercise.

If the first rule of politics is 'make sure you can count', it's a lesson that Tory HQ is learning the hard way on migrant numbers.

One of the biggest problems in the statistics is the enormous level of non-EU migration in the past year: up from 42,000 to a huge 290,000.

And for all the rhetoric of both Cameron and Farage on EU freedom of movement and alleged benefit tourism, that figure alone suggest the scale of that challenge may be too great to overcome in one Parliament.

Rather than pick up on the non-EU stat, the PM himself preferred to dig out his own statistical nugget, claiming that the 86,000 EU migrants who arrived 'looking for work' was proof that he was right target the pull-factor of welfare benefits.

Yet it was notable that the PM, who exudes an effortless confidence since May 7, came closest to his old irritable self when it was put to him that those 86,000 were coming for work not the hope of the dole or a tax credit top-up.

The fact remains that the biggest pull-factor of all is the UK's booming economy and jobs bonanza.

The Lib Dems may be gone but the message of people like Vince Cable is not forgotten among many businesses: the main way Cameron could hit his 'ambition' of reducing net migration to tens of thousands would be if the economy suddenly tanked.

As he ended his event today, the PM reminded us that cutting the deficit was a key part of his plans to keep that economic growth going. Almost as an aside, his parting shot to the gathered Home Office staff was that 'difficult' decisions on cuts were coming their way.

Perhaps that, as well as a natural civil service reserve and scepticism, was why the audience reacted with the briefest, and mildest, of any applause he's had in recent weeks.

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