Everyone in SW1, it seems, has an opinion on this controversial scheme. Most people hate it. The general assumption is that this is a Tory stunt clothed as a government policy.
The question is, though, has the van campaign been a successful policy pilot from a presentational point of view? Here are some thoughts:
1). The right-wing press. The Mail is utterly contemptuous. A leading column claims that only one illegal immigrant has stepped forward. The leader goes on to say that voters punish cheap stunts; what people want is action. And if that wasn’t enough, the paper’s front page (below) is uncompromising.
All of this will have gone down badly in the Home Office, which has a good story to tell about reducing net migration.
2). Disaffected voters. If the aim was to embarrass Nigel Farage, then it has failed miserably. Not that it would ever have succeeded: Farage is a clever fool, not a flaming moron. He spoke sensibly to LBC,
‘The danger is that the kind of message that is being sent from these billboards will be taken not just by illegal immigrants but also by many people of settled ethnic minorities as being some sort of sign of open warfare.’
Beyond that, I’m sure that Farage was grateful for the easy media coverage after a quiet spell for UKIP following the excitement of the spring. Time for another pint of mild, Nigel. The silly Tories have put you back in the game.
3). Coalition differentiation. Nick Clegg has registered his disgust with his own government, while Mark Harper, the Immigration Minister, has talked tougher on immigration than he’ll ever be able to act. Everyone’s a winner; but nobody outside SW1 takes the blindest bit of notice. And neither should they, because it’s nonsense. The vans were on the streets as part of a government policy pilot. All else is noise.
4). Exposing the left. A gambling man would have bet his house on predicting the left’s reaction to this, and he would have won a packet. Once again, it seems that the political left and cultural left is in favour of illegal immigration (it isn’t, of course, but that’s how it might look if you read this catalogue of concern in the Guardian while in an uncharitable frame of mind). Labour MP Tom Harris has a thoughtful piece in the Telegraph on the damage this does his cause.
Immigration remains a serious point of contention within the left (far more so than it is on the right, in my view). Yet I’m not sure that this sort of point-counter-point between right and left plays far beyond SW1.
5).The Tories and ethnic minorities. The diagnosis is simple: ethnic minorities are not inclined to vote Tory, and this white van stunt is unlikely to boost the party’s appeal. Nigel Farage accepts that obvious logic when he talks about the idiocy of antagonising ‘settled ethnic minorities’.
This story has reached my corner of south east London, although there were no vans here. Shopkeepers, barmen and restaurateurs (you know, aspiring, entrepreneurial folk) I’ve spoken to over the last few days are unimpressed with dog-whistle politics – and not necessarily because they feel threatened by it. Indeed, I spoke to one Australian waiter who quipped that the vans must be aimed at Anglophone illegals like him, or perhaps the hopeless Australian cricket team – although I suspect that was wishful thinking on his part. His point was expressed clearly by Rod Liddle yesterday, how many illegal immigrants are going to understand this English language campaign?
It strikes me that Boris Johnson’s proposed amnesty might be a more effective way to deal with illegal migrants who’ve settled here, and it would broaden the Tories’ appeal (or at least not damage it further). It’s a political risk; but voters are open minded, flexible people.