The next set of net migration figures are, conveniently, released on the day of the European and local elections. Some wonder whether this will add grist to the mill of those on the Tory Right who want to cause trouble for Cameron as they can demand that he crack down further on immigration. But I’ve discovered that if there is one demand eurosceptics will make, it will be for the Prime Minister to scrap the target, rather than try harder to meet it.
The reasoning behind this is that the Prime Minister could argue that freedom of movement in the European Union makes it impossible for the Conservatives to have any real chance of meeting this target, save by introducing ever-tougher restrictions on non-EU immigration. Cameron could use this as evidence to support his call for reform of freedom of movement in the EU, and therefore as evidence that voters should back the Conservatives as the only party offering renegotiation and reform in Europe and a referendum.
John Baron, the eurosceptic MP whose work over the past few years has led to that referendum promise, tells me:
‘Given that the Freedom of Movement measures mean there is little that can be done to reduce a large component of our annual immigration levels, an overall target is perhaps moot. This underlines the importance of the Prime Minister’s sensible policy of re-negotiation with the EU on this and a range of other issues.’
Mark Field has previously criticised the target as part of his Conservatives for Managed Migration campaign, but this is the first mainstream eurosceptic call for the target to be ditched. Baron’s colleague Mark Pritchard says similar, telling Coffee House:
‘Target or not, it’s getting the numbers down that counts and the numbers up for those sector skills the UK needs.’
Only last week the Prime Minister recommitted himself to that target, saying he felt it was ‘achievable’. But here is an attempt by eurosceptic MPs who haven’t always made his life easy in the past to help him out with a target that he must know deep down will only be met by a stroke of good luck or a wonky immigration policy.