In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story, Silver Blaze, Sherlock Holmes acquires a vital clue from the dog who didn’t bark in the night. This election has its own silent dog – immigration.
As the Daily Mail highlighted yesterday, for all that immigration is rated by the public as one of the most important issues facing the country, it has been scarcely accorded a walk-on part in the campaign.
Neither of the two main parties want to talk about immigration, partly because they have little or nothing to say on the subject but mainly because they are afraid that be raising the subject, they will play into Ukip’s hands.
The Mail, pursuing the story with its customary vigour, reports that a new Ipsos MORI poll finds that barely one in ten voters are satisfied with David Cameron’s border policies. But this figures conceals significant disparities between two groups of voters: those who have defected to Ukip from the Conservatives and those who are sticking with David Cameron’s party (clearly a larger group).
Among the former group of Ukip defectors, a startling 94 per cent say they are dissatisfied with Cameron’s immigration policy; among the latter group of Tory loyalists, the percentage dissatisfied is 45 per cent.
Now check out the four latest voting intention polls published last night. For all the talk of Ukip’s poll rating sliding, Farage’s party scored 18 per cent, 17, 13 and 10 – an average of nearly 15 per cent. Little sign there of the Ukip threat fading away as disgruntled voters reluctantly accept that they are choosing a government and have to plump for either Cameron or Ed Miliband and can no longer indulge in the politics of the protest vote.
The immigration dog may not be barking its head off but it is still there in its kennel growling the night away.
The news management that has so far kept the immigration story away from the headlines is, one must concede, a credit to the strategists and spin doctors in the Tory and Labour camps. This is even more remarkable given the ghastly immigration crisis brewing in the Mediterranean where hundreds of lives are being lost as desperate Africans and Asians gamble everything on a perilous crossing to Europe in rusting hulks supplied at a ruinous price by the rapacious slave traders of the 21st century.
Yesterday, Cameron was forced to interrupt his campaign to attend an emergency summit in Brussels which agreed to pump more money into a search and rescue operation. But despite a call from Australian PM Tony Abbott for Europe to follow his country’s example and deploy warships to return migrants to their country of embarkation – a tough stance backed by Farage – the EU effectively decided to kick the can down the road. Nothing much will be done to tackle the crisis even though thousands of people, many fleeing the civil wars scarring their countries, are massing on the Libyan coast determined to make the crossing.
Cameron has appealed to Ukip voters to come home to the Tories. Given that nearly half of them are natural Conservatives, the Tory poll rating could be as high as the low forties if this appeal had real traction. The Daily Mail poll explains why Cameron’s pleas are falling on deaf ears. Unless he can convince a sizeable number of his former supporters that he has genuine proposals to turn the immigrant tide – and he is not without ideas even if they fall short of curbing free movement across the EU – he will struggle to make an impact.
This morning, in the Mail, Cameron begins his counter-offensive, reminding voters that he plans to introduce a four-year ban on migrants claiming UK benefits and warning his defectors that Labour will allow a return to uncontrolled immigration. It may not be enough, but it is a start.