Last updated: April 14, 2011 10:22 pm

Immigration row breaks coalition truce

Vince Cable has broken the co­alition’s carefully constructed truce over immigration , denouncing the prime minister’s criticism of high levels of migration to Britain as “very unwise”.

The Liberal Democrat business secretary said that David Cameron “risked inflaming extremism” after he said record levels of immigrants in recent years had “placed real pressures on communities up and down our country” and needed to be tackled. “I want good immigration, not mass immigration,” Mr Cameron had said in his speech.

Tensions between the pair escalated as Mr Cameron attacked his colleague and insisted that his speech, made in the Tory heartland of Hampshire, was “moderate, sensible and reasonable”.

The row left the Lib Dems with a political clean-up job as the party moved quickly to quash evidence of a coalition split and play down suggestions that Mr Cable could face the sack.

Nick Clegg’s camp distanced the deputy prime minister from Mr Cable as they emphasised that the Lib Dem leader had seen, and approved, Mr Cameron’s speech on Wednesday night. But aides said he also disliked some of the rhetoric.

Downing Street played down the significance of Mr Cameron’s latest spat with his business secretary, insisting that Mr Cable would stay in his post in spite of breaking the edict of collective cabinet responsibility.

While Mr Cameron’s speech did not change government policy, Mr Cable was reportedly fuming over the tone of the address. “I do understand there is an election coming but talk of mass immigration risks inflaming the extremism to which he and I are both strongly opposed,” he told the BBC.

Mr Cable, who campaigned hard to improve migration caps for business and universities late last year, was also irritated by Mr Cameron’s assertion that he would reduce net migration from hundreds of thousands of people to “tens of thousands”.

“[It] is not part of the coalition agreement; it is Tory party policy only,” Mr Cable said. However, the policy was announced as part of the government’s agenda in the Queen’s Speech last May.

As the top tier of each party sought to shut down talk of a split on Thursday, rumblings continued below. One Whitehall official said the angry exchange between the prime minister and his cabinet colleague “looked bad on all levels”, while a senior Lib Dem said Mr Cable was only reflecting what his peers really thought.

Tory backbenchers were also privately fuming that Mr Cable had not been disciplined for his maverick behaviour. He is already on a warning after ill-judged remarks about Rupert Murdoch’s attempt to take control of BSkyB resulted in his department being stripped of responsibility of media regulation.

“A good question is whether a Tory minister would have got away with this, rather like would another parliamentary private secretary have got away with what Norman Lamb [Clegg’s PPS] said about the NHS [at the weekend]?,” said one right wing backbencher.

Mr Cameron was meanwhile criticised by Labour for misleading use of statistics by suggesting that European Union net migration to Britain in the year to June was just 27,000. The ONS said that 57,000 was a more valid figure as it discounted the net 30,000 Britons emigrating from the UK.

Immigration is regularly cited by British people as their biggest concern after the economy. Between 1997 and 2009, 2.2m more people came to live in the UK than left to live abroad.

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