David Cameron is under pressure from two of his potential successors as party leader, Boris Johnson and Theresa May, to raise the bar in EU negotiations by reopening the seemingly abandoned demand to restrict the free movement of labour.
Cameron, due to meet the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, on Friday, has set his face against trying to challenge one of the founding principles of the European Union. The foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, warned that the demand was simply unachievable. He said eastern European leaders know if they made such a concession to Britain it would represent “domestic political suicide”.
But in speeches to the Conservative conference on Tuesday, both Johnson and May made the case for Britain having more control over its borders.
The mayor of London argued: “You will loosen the bonds that should unite society if people feel that their elected politicians have abdicated their ability to control those things that ought, frankly, to be within their power.”
Johnson’s warning, couched in the context of strong personal support for the principle of immigration, also included a call that “new laws affecting the British public are made by people the British public can kick out at elections”.
In her conference address, May, more constrained by collective cabinet responsibility, also warned: “We must have an immigration system that allows us to control who comes to our country.” But in one of the most stridently anti-immigration speeches by a mainstream UK politician, the home secretary said the economic benefits of high immigration were “close to zero”. She added that the “numbers coming from Europe are unsustainable and the rules have to change”.
The intervention by the two potential leadership contenders, which provoked a rebuke by Iain Duncan Smith, risks overshadowing the prime minister’s conference speech on Wednesday, in which he will seek to strike an upbeat noteas he depicts himself as the leader of the “turnaround decade” determined to address “deep problems in our society” such as the blighted life chances of poor children.
Cameron, desperate to prevent splits on Europe from continually destabilising his party over the next two years, has tried to construct a tight and achievable set of demands. But senior figures – some fuelled by leadership ambitions – are demanding he seeks far more than the right to restrict in-work benefits to EU citizens in the UK.
They are arguing that clear protection of UK borders is necessary if he is to stem the flow of migration into Britain, the single biggest issue driving voters to support an exit from the EU. Pressure is also being applied to Cameron to accept that he may have to delay a referendum until 2017 to secure this more ambitious set of demands.
In a speech that shocked both business and some of her cabinet colleagues, May stayed just inside the parameters of government policy, but pointed out that free- movement rules did not just mean European nationals had the right to reside in Britain; they meant anyone who had married a European could come to the UK without condition.
She added current rules meant that hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers in Germany would “eventually get EU citizenship and the free-movement rights that come with it”. In a clear criticism of Germany, she said as many as half the 800,000 asylum seekers there were not migrants from Syria or the camps on Syrian borders.
May concluded that some of the consequences of immigration in the UK were unmanageable and were exacting too great a price in lost social cohesion. She blamed migration for the need to build 210,000 homes a year and create 900,000 school places by 2024.
Reflecting the anger in the party leadership at the use of Europe to jostle for the party succession, Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, sniped: “All I would suggest to my colleagues is this: a little less on leadership and a little more on delivery, will do me just fine.”
Cameron struck a markedly less harsh tone than May, saying: “It’s right that we accept we have not done enough to control immigration, but we do it on the basis of believing that the multi-ethnic, multifaith, multiracial democracy we built here is a real model for the world.”
Hammond also tried to douse expectations of a breakthrough on free movement, saying it would be “very, very difficult” to achieve any change in this area.
Speaking at a fringe hosted by the Demos thinktank, the foreign secretary said: “We are clear, and we have been clear from the early part of this discussion, it is going to be very, very difficult to negotiate a change on the fundamental principle of freedom of movement. So the principle itself is deeply enshrined in the psyche of many of the member states who are actually most well disposed to us and want to work with us to help us to get the best possible package.”
But Hammond said the government would be able to reduce the “attraction factors” that encourage people to come to Britain such as the “generous access” to welfare payments and the payment of in-work benefits before people have contributed. “There we have a lot more sympathy, a lot more flexibility and a lot more willingness to work with us,” he said.
“No politician in eastern Europe is going to support the end of freedom of movement,” he said. “It would be domestic political suicide.”
Asked whether the end of freedom of movement was out of the negotiations but that there could be room for manoeuvre on benefits, Hammond said: “That is exactly right. The principle is sacred to many of these people.”