On 14 April, David Cameron tried to firm up the Tory vote for 5 May with a hardline speech on immigration and on welfare cuts.
The speech was made to an invited audience of Tory activists in a small town, but pushed to the press so that it would get front-page headlines. (Daily Mail: “PM savages Labour's open-door policy”).
Lib-Dem leader and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said he saw the speech in advance and “noted rather than approved” it. Lib-Dem business minister Vince Cable, more irritably, told the BBC that the speech was “very unwise”.
“I do understand there is an election coming but talk of mass immigration risks inflaming extremism”.
In his speech Cameron repeated the Tories' pre-election plan to cut net immigration to tens of thousands. This plan was widely reckoned to be demagogic flam and impractical short of economic slump which would encourage mass emigration.
Cable noted: “The reference to [reducing numbers to] tens of thousands of immigrants rather than hundreds of thousands is not part of the coalition agreement, it is Tory party policy only”.
Cameron seems to have got away with a calculated slap at the Lib Dems. The media were allowed to report that “many Lib Dems” were annoyed at Cable's reaction, and Cable himself softened his criticism in later comments.
The conflict will not go away. Lib-Dem opposition to the Tories on this is stiffened by substantial discontent with the Tories' curbs on immigration among big business and among university chiefs.
Cable did not mention Cameron's linking of his anti-migrant stand with a hard welfare-cuts line.
“The real issue is this: 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... That's another powerful reason why this government is undertaking the biggest shake-up of the welfare system for generations…”
Cameron stressed that he is not against rich immigrants. He will “roll out the red carpet for anyone who has a great business idea and serious investment”.
To rally the Tory base, and spook the Lib Dems, Cameron defined the problem as “the largest influx of people Britain has ever had” creating “discomfort and disjointedness in some neighbourhoods”.
He would know that the press would translate that into such terms as “Britain has been torn apart by the biggest influx of immigrants in history” (opening words of the Daily Mail front page).
In the midst of economic crisis where people will want to find easy targets to blame for loss of jobs and services, Cameron is knowingly playing with racist fire.
Labour leader Ed Miliband, however, commented only: “The next time he makes a speech why don't they get a grip, have a proper discussion in government, get an agreed policy, because that's the right way to run a government”.
The fight against welfare cuts and the fight for open borders go hand in hand. And if pushed hard enough, they can crack this coalition apart.