6 Mar 2014

If coalition relations are bad now, what will they be like when the general election comes round?

Never before do I recall a minister publicly attacking another in such stark, vituperative terms. In a speech to Demos this morning, the new Conservative Immigration Minster James Brokenshire asked why the Business Secretary Vince Cable “kept asserting what seem to be ¬†falsehoods” on the issue.

Falsehoods? That’s very strong language – only one rank lower than “lies”, and a word that would be regarded as “unparliamentary” and ruled out-of-order had the minister dared say it said in the House of Commons.

What’s more, in the text of the speech distributed by Mr Brokenshire’s office afterwards – the pre-delivery draft version, I presume – Mr Brokenshire isn’t even quoted using the qualifying word “seem”. It’s “falsehoods” pure and simple. And that stronger statement, I imagine would have been the speech agreed by the Home Secretary Theresa May and by Downing Street.

Tory Immigration minister James BrokenshireMr Brokenshire spent five minutes of his speech today trying to demolish what he said were a series of statements on immigration by Vince Cable in the last week which he said were “simply incorrect” – on British people emigrating, the displacement of workers, student visas and so on. And it was all so personal. Several times Mr Brokenshire mentioned Vince Cable by name. He accused the Business Secretary of speaking “condescendingly”, and told Cable to stick to the facts. Quite brave for a junior minister to attack a Cabinet colleague, and a man who is 24 years his senior.

And if relations between the Coalition parties are like that now – 14 months before the election – what will they be like a year from now? No doubt Tory ministers will by then be accusing their Liberal Democrat colleagues of outright “lies”, if not murder.

It must also be slightly difficult for Home Office civil servants having to distribute and explain the words of a minister attacking the boss of another government department.

This evening, in a speech at Mansion House in the City, Vince Cable will stick to his guns. While not hitting back at James Brokenshire personally, he’ll say he’s “intensely relaxed” about people coming to work or study in Britain.

Meanwhile, in what was a long and thoughtful speech, James Brokenshire reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to bringing net immigration down to tens of thousands a year, rather than the current hundreds of thousands.

Afterwards, I asked him whether it was realistic still to try and achieve that target by the election next spring. Yes, he confirmed, 2015 is still the target.

As Mr Brokenshire delivered his speech, the Home Office and the Business Department published their much discussed “secret report” on the impact of immigration on native employment. The report, a survey of existing research into the effects of immigration on employment levels, broadly came down in Vince Cable’s favour.

“There is agreement across the literature,” the report says, “that there are no substantial long-term impacts of migration on the labour market outcomes of UK workers.” In other words, over time, the overall impact is negligible.

The report says that “when the economy is strong” then “there is relatively little evidence that migration has caused statistically significant displacement of UK natives”.

However, the report does say “there is evidence of some labour market displacement, particularly by non-EU migrants in recent years when the economy was in recession”.

All a bit of a problem for Tories wanting to be tough on immigration yet proclaim economic recovery. The report suggests immigration only has an impact on jobs during recession, and yet Conservative ministers surely want to persuade us that the recession is well and truly over.