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There may be trouble ahead for Theresa May over immigration

By Peter Hoskin
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2012 was, on the whole, a stabilising year for Theresa May. The wrongheaded speculation about her future, that accompanied the previous year’s border row, had dissipated, and it left the Home Secretary seeming more confident and secure. Her expansive speech to the Tory Party conference was a case in point. By the end of the year, she could boast of “the biggest fall in net migration since 2008”.

Problem is, it looks as though 2013 could be somewhat more tumultuous for Ms May. And the reason? Britain’s borders, once again. This morning, Migration Watch forecasts that around 50,000 people could enter the UK from Romania and Bulgaria each year, when transitional controls are fully lifted on 1st January 2014. This forecast could, of course, be wrong — the IPPR is saying that “it would be very surprising if net migration from Bulgaria and Romania was on the scale predicted by Migration Watch” — but it captures the sorts of doubts and fears that are likely escalate throughout the year. Can the Tories meet their aspiration to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands”? Can the country’s social infrastructure withstand the “influx” that Eric Pickles warned about last weekend?

The Home Secretary has spoken about this before, of course. In November, she implied that the UK is powerless to prevent the migration from Romania and Bulgaria. On her account, it is not possible to extend the controls that Labour introduced in 2005 — because of EU law.

But that doesn’t mean the Home Secretary will fail to act. My guess is that we shall see a two-tier approach from the Government. On Tier 1 will be measures to limit the impact of Romanian and Bulgarian immigration on Britain's public services: Ms May has talked about denying those migrants automatic and complete access to our benefits and health systems. On Tier 2 will be a more general push to reform the EU's "freedom of movement" laws, for in future. In fact, this could form part of the renegotiation that David Cameron is likely to preview tomorrow. 

One question hovering over all this is whether Labour will lend their support to the Government. Ed Miliband's party has spoken in favour of extending the transitional contols, were that possible, and it's also striking that David Blunkett is arguing for Child Benefit to be restricted for European migrants. In any case, I’m sure the Tories, and Ms May, will appreciate any covering fire. After all, as Lord Ashcroft's recent polling suggested, immigration is actually a more potent issue than Europe for those turning to Ukip. This story has both.


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