BRITAIN’S coalition suffered its most significant political split yesterday after the Liberal Democrat’s Business Secretary, Vince Cable, accused Prime Minister David Cameron of inflaming racial tensions with his speech on immigration.
Dr Cable said Mr Cameron’s warning on the speed of immigration was inflammatory and very unwise and suggested it was calculated to win votes in next month’s local elections. “I do understand there is an election coming,” Dr Cable said, “but talk of mass immigration risks inflaming the extremism to which he and I are both strongly opposed.”
Dr Cable was campaigning yesterday and received a huge amount of support from Liberal Democrats’ activists for his immigration stance. Those close to him insisted his comments had not been premeditated. They said that just as Mr Cameron was free to put forward Conservative policies outside the coalition agreement, so Dr Cable was entitled to hit back.
The Business Secretary also claimed that Mr Cameron’s pledge to cut immigration to tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands was not part of the coalition agreement: “It is Tory party policy only.”
Lib Dems’ leader Nick Clegg was sent a text of the speech in advance, which is an unusual move for an electioneering event, and had “noted but not approved” the contents of it. Mr Cameron hit back by reminding the Lib Dems that government policy on immigration had been signed off by Mr Clegg inside cabinet committees.
The cabinet committee dealing with such issues is chaired by Mr Clegg, giving the Liberal Democrats huge sway over this area of policy. “This speech is Liberal Democrat policy. This is coalition policy,” Mr Cameron said.
He rejected accusations he was being inflammatory, and said he had made a “sensible, measured” contribution.
He added that he had talked consistently about the issue as leader of the Conservative Party and rejected Dr Cable’s suggestion he had been “electioneering”.
There had been “robust” discussions inside the coalition over the policies, which had been agreed to by both parties, he said.
Later, Dr Cable appeared to back down from his criticism of the Prime Minister, and said he “supported the policy”.
Mr Cameron also earned the unwelcome support of the British National Party, which accused him of stealing its policy on tackling immigration. Simon Darby, its spokesman, said: “It’s cynical opportunism, isn’t it? It’s almost like a ceremonial adoption of our policy about two weeks before any major vote. In other words, he knows what ordinary British people are thinking.”
Mr Cameron’s intervention prompted a renewed debate about the direction of Britain’s immigration policy, with some people questioning the coalition government’s immigration cap.
Sarah Mulley, associate director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, a left-of-centre think tank, said the aim of reducing net immigration to five figures was “looking increasingly difficult to meet”.
“The policies which the government is introducing in order to meet the target will cause real economic harm,” she said.
Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, warned the Prime Minister against inflaming the immigration debate. “Immigration needs strong, fair controls and open, sensible debate. Unfortunately, David Cameron isn’t delivering that,” she said. “There is a big and growing gap between his promises and his actions.”
Keith Vaz, the Labour chairman of the home affairs select committee, said the Prime Minister was “picking on communities without offering solutions”.