British Prime Minister David Cameron’s chief political aim in recent months has been to shore up his right flank with a wary eye toward the surging U.K. Independence Party. But his latest fig leaf to British hard-liners — a pilot program to slap hefty fees on visas for “high-risk” visitors from six former colonies in Africa and Asia — could serve to actually divide his Conservative Party’s socially moderate business wing from blue-collar nativist forces that are angry at the status quo, exacerbating his problems ahead of elections in 2015.
The visa rules, confirmed Monday by the British Home Office, will mean $4630 refundable bonds to be paid by those coming from Nigeria, Ghana, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Already, immigration advocates are raising concerns about what they see as racial undertones to the clampdown. And if Cameron can point to a campaign promise to curb immigration as his motivation, there is nonetheless a certain amount of danger that he tears his coalition asunder with such a radical change. After all, even as UKIP has been surging in the polls (knocking the Conservatives into third place in a recent by-election), Cameron’s remains at its core a socially moderate pro-business party, one that does not want to scare off foreign investment or capital (or talent, for that matter). Much like the broad coalition that favors immigration reform in the United States, many of Britain’s most powerful economic forces are surely concerned about the P.M.’s turn toward populism.
But one has to wonder if Cameron actually intends to follow through with the pilot program, or whether it’s simply a dog-whistle intended to buttress his conservative credentials and solidify the party behind him as seeks to advance a referendum on E.U. membership after (hopefully winning) elections in 2015. Now that he’s released such an inflammatory proposal, the prime minister can sit back and let the right do battle — and then glide toward whichever faction appears to be carrying the day in the court of public opinion. Assuming the moderate forces (the same ones that are skeptical of ditching the E.U.) manage to taint this thing as a racially-charged mistake, Cameron will be able to tell hardcore anti-immigrant forces that he did everything he could, while nixing the proposal and avoiding any substantive economic or diplomatic penalties.
So if the debut of these visa rules has generated some harsh headlines for the British prime minister, this looks at the moment like a potentially very savvy way to peel off UKIP backers and fire up his base without upsetting Britain’s reigning economic order.