Theresa May, the home secretary, and the Foreign Office are locked in a battle over the impact of European immigration to Britain, as the minister struggles to find evidence to support her case for tighter restrictions on migrants.
Ms May has infuriated the Foreign Office by “dragging her feet” over a report on the impact of the EU’s free movement rules, amid claims that the evidence does not support her political narrative about abuse of the system.
The stand-off reflects growing tensions inside the Tory party that a review of the balance of powers between Westminster and Brussels is failing to provide ammunition for eurosceptics. When the review was launched last year, many Tories hoped it would provide a blueprint for repatriating powers from the EU ahead of prime minister David Cameron’s planned referendum on Europe by 2017.
In July, Mr Cameron published the first batch of review papers, covering areas including the single market, which found that the balance of “competences” was “broadly appropriate”. Some Tory MPs claimed the work reflected the bias of a “Europhile Whitehall elite”.
Ms May’s paper – “Internal market: free movement of persons” – will be the most contentious of a second round of reports, as it focuses attention on the coalition’s claim that EU migrants are placing a burden on welfare, housing and health services. One official close to the exercise said the government was running out of time to publish the report: “Theresa is dragging her feet.” The Home Office declined to comment. The Foreign Office, which is overseeing the exercise, and the Liberal Democrats are demanding that the report is based on evidence.
The government admitted last month in a document sent to the European Commission that it keeps no figures on how many EU nationals claim welfare in the UK, and coalition insiders say Ms May is finding it hard to find evidence to underpin her argument about migration.
One government official said Ms May was frustrated that the evidence it has received “doesn’t fit the Home Office view”. “Theresa wants to go big on impact of immigration on local services and health tourism and the reality is there is very little evidence to demonstrate this.”