It would be a volte-face to prompt an angry backlash from the right. But there are a few smoke signals emerging from above 10 Downing Street that a rethink of the immigration cap could be underway.
David Cameron’s spokesman insisted this morning that no decision had been made over the cap, which applies to the number of visitors from outside the EU. (The vast majority come from inside the free market and thus cannot be halted).
But the prime minister’s speech to the CBI gave a strong hint of compromise:
‘As we control our borders and bring immigration to a manageable level, we will not impede you from attracting the best talent from around the world.”
At present there is a temporary cap of 24,100 which applies until April. After that the government has pledged a new annual limit. Not only are many large companies angry about the lack of flexibility but Vince Cable, business secretary, has also loudly championed their cause.
No 10 said that Mr Cameron’s remarks did not signify there was a “rethink” on the policy. But a spokesman said:
“We will be looking obviously at the level of that cap and at the way in which it operates and making sure that works in a way that allows business to bring the people that they need into the UK.”
The problem for Cameron is that the cap was a manifesto promise, one which is popular with many Tory MPs and much of the press. Squeezing out of it entirely would be rather tricky – and would look like another concession to the Lib Dem junior coalition partners.
Having said that, there are some areas in which compromise could be found; restrictions on moving staff from country to country within the same company (intra-company transfers) are a very obvious area for retreat.