British Prime Minister David Cameron pledged a fresh clampdown on immigration in the Queen’s Speech on Wednesday, seeking to bolster his right-wing credentials and counter the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP).
Measures to restrict migrants’ access to healthcare and tackle illegal immigration form a central part of the speech, which sets out the British government’s legislative priorities for the year.
The speech, written by coalition ministers and read out by Queen Elizabeth II in the House of Lords at a ceremony full of pageantry and historical symbolism, was drawn up before UKIP won a quarter of the vote in local elections last week.
But it reflects growing concern among Cameron’s Conservatives and other major political parties about UKIP, which is capturing the populist vote with its strong anti-immigration, Eurosceptic message.
“Our resolve to turn our country around has never been stronger,” Cameron and his Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said in a foreword to the speech.
UKIP’s rise has reignited the debate about Britain’s place in the European Union, which on Tuesday saw the first public call by a senior Tory for an exit from the EU.
The comments by Nigel Lawson, a former finance minister under Margaret Thatcher, have reinvigorated calls for Cameron to bring forward a referendum on EU membership planned for 2017.
It is against these pressures that Cameron and Clegg have drawn up this year’s Queen’s Speech, which they promised would help support the hard-working majority.
In a foreword, they admitted that the three years since they formed a government have not been easy.
The British economy is flatlining and austerity measures continue to bite, but they promised new measures to help small businesses and “people who work hard and want to get on in life”.
“We know that Britain can be great again because we’ve got the people to do it. Today’s Queen’s Speech shows that we will back them every step of the way,” they said.
An immigration bill will propose fines for landlords who rent homes to illegal immigrants and will restrict migrants’ use of the free-to-access National Health Service (NHS).
The Queen’s Speech takes place every year or so at the start of a new parliamentary session, and contains all the pageantry expected of a state occasion.
The monarch arrives at parliament in a horse-drawn carriage, dons a crown and sits on a throne to deliver the address to a House of Lords packed with peers clad in scarlet, gold and ermine robes, and suited lawmakers from the elected House of Commons.
Cameron came into office promising to dramatically reduce net migration, and claims to have already cut numbers by one third thanks largely to a tightening of the visa system.
But immigration remains a major political issue ahead of an expected fresh influx of eastern Europeans after the EU lifts work restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians next year.
UKIP has capitalised on public concerns, and a new YouGov poll published on Wednesday revealed the party had 16 per cent of the vote, putting them in third place, ahead of Clegg’s Liberal Democrats.
Cameron’s promise to hold a referendum on the EU was intended in part to halt UKIP’s rise, but he is now under pressure to bring the vote forward to before the next general election in 2015.
However, the premier said on Tuesday he would stick to his plan to renegotiate Britain’s terms with Brussels and then put it to a vote.
“I want to give people a choice between Britain remaining in a reformed EU or leaving that EU. That is the choice that people want and there is only one way to get it and that is by supporting the Conservatives at the next election,” he said.
Another YouGov poll on Wednesday found that 46 per cent of voters would vote to leave the EU, and 35 per cent would vote to stay.