British Prime Minister David Cameron announced sweeping new immigration proposals on Monday, which would restrict migrants’ access to a variety of benefits in Britain, including housing, unemployment, and health services. Cameron’s immigration crackdown comes on the heels of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s toughest speech yet on the subject this past Friday, in which he proposed the introduction of an Australian-style cash bond scheme for immigrants from “high risk” countries, even going so far as to reverse his previous stance on granting amnesty to certain immigrants. The shift towards tougher rhetoric on immigration across the political spectrum is reflective of a growing fear of the insurgent U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) which, despite not holding a single seat in parliament, has shaped up to be a formidable political force.
Worries over the expected arrival of thousands of Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants to Britain after the European Union lifts travel restrictions on both countries in 2014 have empowered the Euroskeptic UKIP, which has vociferously campaigned against the U.K.’s current immigration policies (party leader Nigel Farage has criticized them as an “open door” for immigrants, rhetoric partially echoed by Cameron in Monday’s announcement). All three major political parties have taken notice, especially in the wake of UKIP’s surprise showing in a February by-election for a parliamentary seat in Eastleigh, coming in ahead of Cameron’s Conservatives. Even Labour has revealed its panic about the growing potency of the anti-immigrant populist trend by apologizing for and disavowing its previous positions on immigration and proposing a new set that almost completely match the current government’s.
For Cameron and his allies, immediate steps on the immigration issue may be a necessary trade-off to appease the right fringe of his party. Despite the questionable benefits of his new proposals (not to mention their morally problematic aspects), the new policy may be the best tool Cameron has to ease concerns around Britain’s Euro-ties, given economic fragility in the region. Though if the Eastleigh by-election is anything to go by, the tougher rhetoric will not give Cameron the electoral juice he’s looking for.