Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday blamed high levels of non-European immigration on Britain’s domestic welfare system in a speech on immigration that prompted a strong and unusually sharp rebuttal from a senior cabinet colleague.
"The real issue is this," Cameron told workers of his Conservative party in Hampshire. "Migrants are filling gaps in the labour market left wide open by a welfare system that for years has paid British people not to work. That’s where the blame lies – at the door of our woeful welfare system, and the last government who comprehensively failed to reform it."
He also blamed the previous Labour government for allowing mass immigration and illegal immigrants – workers, families and students – for exploiting loopholes in the law.
The prime minister’s focus on immigration, coming just three weeks before important local council elections that are expected to deliver a verdict on government’s popularity, was slated by Business Secretary Vince Cable, a senior member of coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats.
Describing the comments as "very unwise," Cable said: "I do understand there is an election coming but talk of mass immigration risks inflaming extremism to which he and I are both strongly opposed."
Normally a sacking offence, Cable’s job at the helm of British efforts to revive economic growth was nevertheless said to be secure.
Cable’s strong reaction could be put down to personal reasons. A man who travelled the length and breadth of India as a young economist, Cable knows India better than any other member of the British government. He will also know that the phrase ‘non-EU migrants’ mostly refers to Indians.
Cable’s late first wife Olympia was an East African of Indian origin and their marriage in 1968 led his father to stop all communication with him for four years. "Most MPs feel strongly about immigration and racism, but very few of them have such an intense personal stake in the issue," wrote a correspondent for The Guardian.
After his speech, Cameron told a questioner his government’s immigration policy has been agreed by Liberal Democrats after a "proper debate."