Nick Clegg will make a bold grab for traditional Tory territory today by accusing David Cameron of failing to shore up Britain’s borders.
The Deputy Prime Minister is to claim Mr Cameron was so “fixated” on his target of reducing net immigration to tens of thousands that he neglected the need to bolster basic checks.
The Conservatives have only recently “backed away” from the commitment and allowed the coalition to make progress on the underlying issues, according to the Liberal Democrat leader.
The intervention, designed to position the Lib Dems firmly in the centre ground ahead of next year’s general election, comes in a keynote speech in London.
Mr Clegg will seek to soothe concerns among grassroots activists about the party taking a harder line on immigration, insisting his time in government has convinced him “we can marry our ideals about the open, welcoming Britain we love with the realities of running an effective immigration system”.
“The coalition has made extremely important progress, but this is like turning round an oil tanker: we inherited a system in utter disarray,” he will say.
“No one could tell us the basics: who’s here? Who’s left? Where are the holes in the system?
“And, to be candid, we weren’t helped by the fact that my coalition partners came into government with the wrong priority.
“The Conservatives were completely fixated on the net migration target, and, specifically, their pledge to get it down to tens of thousands – a Tory rallying cry in opposition.
“I made sure it wasn’t in the coalition agreement precisely because it’s unrealistic; because it’s based on a fallacy: if a million Brits leave and a million migrants come, you get net migration of zero – does that mean you’ve done the job?
“Thankfully the Conservatives have now softened their attachment to the net migration target and backed away from ‘tens of thousands’ – omitted entirely, for example, from the Prime Minister’s immigration article last week.
“They’ve realised they won’t deliver it. And bluntly it’s made it much easier for us to get things done.”
Mr Clegg will say he demanded a pledge to reintroduce border exit checks was included in the coalition agreement.
“Britain used to have exit checks – successive Conservative and Labour governments phased them out,” he will say.
“I insisted that we commit, in the coalition agreement, to reintroducing them and I’ve been very open about my frustration that the Home Office has taken so long to get going.
“They didn’t make this a priority in the early years – as I said, the Conservatives were fixated on the illusory net migration target.
“Before the election around 57% of entry and exit points were covered by proper checks. By March last year we were only at 65%.
“So I intervened and I’m pleased to say we are now at 80% and we’re working with Eurotunnel and the big ferry companies to continue plugging the gaps.
“If the Home Office hasn’t completed this by the election, the Liberal Democrats will put it in our manifesto again.”
Mr Clegg will say it was right for Home Secretary Theresa May to split the UK Border Agency into visa and enforcement sections.
He will also highlight the coalition’s crackdown on bogus colleges, streamlining of the immigration appeals process, and bigger fines for employers who exploit migrants as cheap labour.
In a passage that could alarm Europhiles in his party, Mr Clegg will stress that he wants to prevent EU migrants exploiting UK welfare.
“It’s a hugely complicated area, and not without controversy, but we’re doing it,” he will say.
“There will be no coming to Britain and claiming out-of-work benefits on day one.
“The Prime Minister announced last week that the period for which you can claim at all will be reduced to three months unless you have a realistic prospect of finding a job.
“We’ve also made it impossible for newly arrived migrants to leapfrog British citizens patiently queuing for social housing – you’ll have to live in an area for two years before you can be added to the list.
“These are changes every liberal should support because a sense of fair play is the best antidote we have to resentment and mistrust.”