British coalition partners to trade barbs over immigration

Reuters News
Posted: Mar 05, 2014 7:02 PM

By William James

LONDON (Reuters) - A deep rift in Britain's two-party coalition government will be laid bare on Thursday when ministers from each party set out their opposing views on whether immigration is good or bad for the country.

Speaking at separate events on the same day, Conservative immigration minister James Brokenshire will say immigration is damaging Britain and must be reduced, while Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable will declare himself "intensely relaxed" about migrants working and studying in the country.

The opposing views underscore how thinly-stretched the coalition has become on some topics in the run-up to a 2015 election. Both parties are using immigration as an issue to distinguish themselves and appeal to their core voters after nearly four years of co-governance.

Opinion polls regularly show immigration to be one of voters' top three concerns. The rise of the UK Independence Party, which opposes "open-door" immigration, has put pressure on Prime Minister David Cameron to take a tough line on the issue to stop his supporters defecting.

Brokenshire will reinforce Cameron's position that overall net migration needs to be cut to less than 100,000, and will say that the number of migrants arriving into Britain from the EU is "too high".

"Some have tried to claim that this rapid increase is somehow 'good' for the country ... I disagree," Brokenshire will say, according to extracts of his speech released in advance.

Cameron's pledge to cut net immigration was undermined last month by figures showing that a net 212,000 people moved to Britain in the year to September, a jump of 37 percent.


On the other side of the coalition divide, Cable was due to welcome immigration, saying that it offers businesses a way to recruit skilled workers, and downplaying the Conservatives' argument that many migrants come to Britain to claim benefits.

"We need to kill all the scare stories," Cable will say, according to his text. "We just have to stop treating people coming to work here as if they are a problem."

Cable pointed to official forecasts showing Britain's budget deficit would widen without EU migration. He acknowledged his stand was likely to be unpopular with voters and his coalition partners and called immigration a "politically toxic" issue.

"Those of us who put our heads above the parapet and point out the positives of immigrant workers and students need a reinforced tin hat," he said.

While both parties agree on the need to fix Britain's economy by eliminating its budget deficit, the relative harmony seen in earlier years of the coalition has become fragile ahead of the election.

Differences of opinion on reforms to Britain's welfare system, policy on the future of the country's European Union membership and the government's green energy plans have all surfaced in recent months.

Opinion polls give the opposition Labour party 38 percent of the popular vote, a 5 point lead over the Conservatives, with support for the Liberal Democrat sharply lower than before the previous election at 9 percent.

(Editing by Tom Heneghan)