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Last Updated: Sunday, 4 April, 2004, 15:17 GMT 16:17 UK
Blair gambles on asylum issue
By Paul Wilenius
BBC political correspondent

It's an old political adage; whenever governments hit a major problem with a key policy, they try to solve it by calling a summit.

An immigration officer searches a car
The immigration issue is becoming more important to voters

In the past, they have been called over anti-social behaviour, fuel tax protests, even alcohol abuse. Now it's the turn of asylum and immigration.

On Tuesday, Tony Blair and his Home Secretary David Blunkett will be joined by a host of Foreign Office and Work and Pension Ministers, and the glamour boys from the security services of MI5 and MI6 in Number 10 for an emergency summit on this vexed issue.

Downing Street said it was a stock-taking exercise, a cross-government assault aimed at tackling the abuse of the asylum and immigration systems.
Does the mere act of holding the summit, show that so far the policy and ministers have failed?

For the prime minister and his colleagues shell-shocked by the unexpected departure of Immigration Minister Beverley Hughes last week, it has an obvious upside.

Mr Blair can look and act like a prime minister, and his government will appear as though it is in control.

Publicity stunt?

They can work out new plans, new targets, new eye-catching inititiatives to prove to the British public that the government has not lost it's grip.

The spate of stories in recent weeks have been fed by a steady drip of leaks from civil servants and officials...which shows little sign of drying up

But there are dangers. Critics are entitled to ask the question: If the government needs to call a summit to co-ordinate and re-focus the government's immigration, does that not mean the government's efforts so far have been uncoordinated and unfocused?

Does the mere act of holding the summit, show that so far the policy and ministers have failed?

Even worse if, as Shadow Home Secretary David Davis claims, it turns out to be nothing more than a publicity stunt, and nothing concrete comes out of it, the government will be no further forward.

It could also undermine David Blunkett, for the argument goes, if the home secretary had the problem under control, there would be no need for a summit.

Steady drip

The polling evidence shows that immigration is soaring up the chart of issues electors most care about.

A few years ago, it was 12th out of 12, now it's second only to the health service, and it could go even higher if the Conservatives have anything to do with it.

That's why, in the run-up to the European and local elections on 10 June and the general election next May, the prime minister is so desperate to regain control of the so-called crisis now.

There is however a dangerous new development for Mr Blair. The spate of stories in recent weeks have been fed by a steady drip of leaks from civil servants and officials - used effectively by the Tories to assert that the government's policy is chaotic - which shows little sign of drying up.

These have led to the latest claim in the newspapers that the prime minister did a deal with the Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase in October last year, where Romania would crackdown on people potentially seeking asylum in Britain, and in return the UK would lift visa requirements.

The government vehemently denies there was a deal.

Electorally dangerous

There are also reports that ministers had ordered immigration officers not to arrest suspected immigrants, as they would promptly claim asylum and the figures would shoot up.

But the big long-term problem for Tony Blair is that the impression is growing, that in an effort to meet his promise made in February last year, he pledged to cut the number of asylum seekers by half in six months, while secretly relaxing the controls on migrant workers.

His critics say this means while the asylum door is being jammed shut, the back door to economic migrants is being pushed open.

If this view persists, it could turn out to be electorally dangerous for the government.


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