OK, so let me see if I can make some sense of Government policy on immigration and control of our borders – an issue that concerns the public more than any other.
Conservative policy – written as solemn promises into their manifestos for the last two general elections – is to reduce net immigration (the difference between those who leave and those who arrive) to the ‘tens of thousands’.
David Cameron actually told voters in 2010 that if he didn’t hit the target they should vote him out of office.
Well, it is six years later and he is still at Number 10 – despite the fact that his attempts to fulfil that promise have proved to be a miserable failure.
Official statistics released last month showed that in 2015, far from dropping to the tens of thousands, net immigration had increased to 333,000 – 184,000 of them from the EU, over which we have absolutely no control because of freedom of movement rules.
And once Turkey, Albania and Macedonia become members of the EU, that figure is likely to rise substantially.
Given that the Prime Minister has missed his target by a country mile, he was asked if he was abandoning the pledge. Not a bit of it. He would not ‘cave in’ he said, and the aim of reducing the figure to below 100,000 still stands.
Now, given the plain facts, you might think Cameron has become so detached from reality as to be positively delusional. But so far his policy is at least coherent – he and his Government believe that immigration at current levels is damaging the UK and putting intolerable strain on the NHS, housing and schools and so it must be reduced.
But then it gets very weird. This week Cabinet Minister Michael Gove offered a way of delivering Cameron’s pledge. He said the current policy of sticking to the immigration promise when there was absolutely no hope of achieving it was “corrosive of public trust”.
Instead he concluded the only way the Government could deliver its promise to reduce immigration to acceptable levels would be to leave the EU and adopt an Australian-style points system to allow in only migrants that the economy needs.
As Justice Secretary, he said that he had been unable to stop even terrorists and criminals entering the UK because of EU rules.
Gove said his immigration plan would “liberate the Prime Minister to fulfil the manifesto pledge we all stood on”.
Reaction from the Remain campaign big hitters was furious. Cameron suggested Gove’s immigration plan would be economically disastrous. The Chancellor, George Osborne, said the scheme was “fantasy politics” and Downing Street sources said it was completely unworkable.
Now here is where it gets really confusing. If reducing net immigration to below 100,000 would herald an economic disaster, as Cameron and Osborne now argue, why is it still Government policy? And why did the Prime Minister renew his pledge to precisely this target just a month ago?
You can argue that reducing net immigration to below 100,000 is a good thing for the UK, or alternatively that it would bring about economic collapse. But to argue simultaneously that it will do both – as Cameron and Osborne seem to believe – is simply incoherent.
Cameron and Osborne are intelligent men, not usually given to such muddled thinking. The only way to explain it is by one word – panic.
Immigration is absolutely toxic to the Remain campaign because, like EU bureaucrats, they have absolutely no answers to the serious problems it poses.
They would rather not talk about it all. But every time another migrant boat capsizes in the Mediterranean or a boatload of Albanians lands on a British beach, the opinion polls twitch in favour of the Brexit direction.
Don’t forget that the EU’s own security organisation, Europol, estimates that in Libya alone there are 800,000 migrants ready to travel to Europe. This problem isn’t going to go away any time soon.
And as the former Royal Navy chief Admiral Lord West pointed out this week – a hundred years on from victory at the Battle of Jutland – our modern navy is in no fit state to protect our shores from terrorists or migrants.
As Gove persuasively argues, if you want to reinstate democratic control over our borders and whom we allow into our country, there is only one way to achieve that aim – by leaving the EU.