Home secretary’s climbdown over family visas looks like a hasty, panic retreat

Politics

As if the government’s “stop the boats” policy wasn’t already in disarray, now James Cleverly’s crackdown on legal migration is already unravelling.

In a move cynically timed to avoid a backlash from MPs, he has admitted he’s made a major climbdown on workers bringing family members from overseas to the UK.

When he announced plans in early December to cut legal migration by 300,000, he boasted it was “a crackdown on those who jump the queue to exploit our immigration system”.

One of his most controversial proposals was that from next spring only people earning more than £38,700 would be able to bring a family member from overseas, more than double the current £18,600.

But now, two days after parliament rose for its Christmas recess, the home secretary is – at least initially – slashing the proposed minimum income requirement from £38,700 to £29,000.

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The Cleverly climbdown comes after campaigners claimed the proposed threshold was “cruel and inhumane”, since it would split up families, and this week announced plans for legal action to overturn it.

It’s Mr Cleverly’s first climbdown as home secretary and was revealed just hours after he told guests at a Christmas reception: “I’m enjoying this much, much, much more than I was expecting.”

Is it the first of many retreats by Mr Cleverly on tackling migration, both legal and illegal? Almost certainly. After all, he faces a potentially bruising battle with right-wing Tory MPs over his Rwanda bill in the new year.

The Liberal Democrats called this climbdown a U-turn, which is not quite right because Mr Cleverly is not scrapping his proposed increase in the minimum income requirement altogether.

But the party’s pugnacious home affairs spokesman Alistair Carmichael was scathing, declaring: “You have to wonder who is in charge at the Home Office, or if anyone is.

“It was clear to everyone else that the raising of the earnings threshold was unworkable. This was yet another half-thought-through idea to placate the hardliners on their own backbenches.”

And in a reference to Denis Healey’s first law of politics, Mr Carmichael had this advice for the home secretary: “James Cleverly needs to put down the spade and stop digging.”

Labour’s Yvette Cooper says the climbdown is “more evidence of Tory chaos on immigration” and claims Mr Cleverly is “rowing back in a rush”. And it certainly looks like a hasty, panic retreat.

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It’s also doubtful whether Mr Cleverly will heed Healey’s advice of when you’re in a hole, stop digging, however. He’s under massive political pressure from Tory MPs to curb legal migration and stop the boats.

But this sneaky attempt to avoid his backbenchers’ fury suggests he lacks the guts to announce his climbdown and face his Tory critics or opposition MPs in the House of Commons.

Mr Cleverly also told his party guests that being home secretary was a “massive adrenaline rush” and claimed he is a “success-orientated person”.

Really? After less than six weeks in the job, this climbdown is not a good start. In fact, it doesn’t look very Cleverly.

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