The Conservative and Liberal Democrats Coalition approached a low ebb during the week as a key Conservative election pledge to impose a strict annual limit on immigration resulted in big disagreement between the political cavorters.
Liberal Democrat Vince Cable led a growing rebellion against enforcing a draconian cap on numbers coming into the country, demanding ‘as liberal a policy as possible’.
The Business Secretary has privately described the idea of a tight limit as ‘crazy’ at a time when Britain is trying to boost trade.
His call revealed deep divisions within the Government, with even some senior Tories sympathetic to watering down the policy.
They are understood to include universities minister David Willetts.
A senior Government source last night said Mr Cable would not back down from his position, which has led to a tense Cabinet standoff with Home Secretary Theresa May.
The row came as it emerged that immigration and rising birth rates mean that Britain accounted for nearly a third of the growth in population across the whole of Europe last year, with 412,000 added to the UK total.
Mr Cable, visiting India as part of a mission led by David Cameron, declared: ‘It’s no great secret that in my department and me personally, we want to see an open economy, and as liberal an immigration policy as it’s possible to have.
‘We are arguing, within Government, about how we create the most flexible regime we can possibly have, but in a way that reassures the British public.’
Mr Cable insisted the Government was ‘trying to reconcile two different objectives, one of which is to reassure the British public that immigration is under control, and the other is to have an open economy where we can bring in talents from around the world’.
His intervention prompted a backlash from Right-wing Tory MPs, who said the commitment to reduce net immigration to a level of tens of thousands had been central to their party’s election success.
The Government has imposed a temporary limit on immigration while it considers the level at which an annual cap from non-EU countries should be set.
Home Secretary Theresa May said last month that the measures would bring net migration down to the levels of the 1990s, meaning around 40,000 to 50,000 arrivals each year, rather than the peaks of 200,000 under Labour.
But Liberal Democrats – and some Tories – are arguing that so strict a quota could hit the economic recovery.
Prime Minister David Cameron could be facing a divided Coalition when he returns back to the UK.
Mr Willetts is understood to have told colleagues being briefed this week by immigration minister Damian Green that the commitment to get immigration down to tens of thousands a year should be dropped.
Tory MP Jo Johnson, formerly a journalist based in Delhi, who is accompanying the Prime Minister on his India visit, admitted a quota jarred with the message that Britain is open for global business.
‘There is a contradictory message to some extent,’ Mr Johnson said.
But Philip Hollobone, Tory MP for Kettering, said: ‘The last thing the majority of English people want is a liberal immigration policy. ‘As far as most people are concerned, the country is already full up.
They would be horrified by Vince Cable’s comments. ‘I was elected by my constituents on the basis that I would stand up for more controls on immigration, not less.’
Douglas Carswell, Tory MP for Clacton, said: ‘If you are going to have the sort of open door policy Vince Cable is advocating, it will have some pretty profound implications for our country.
It would ultimately do away with our welfare state and NHS.’
Gerard Batten, of the UK Independence Party, said: ‘This coalition has accepted that it cannot control EU migration, and now it tells us it doesn’t want to control non-EU migration. What part of this policy has anyone voted for?’
A Downing Street source last night insisted that Mr Cable was not arguing for the cap to be abandoned. He said: ‘The debate is about implementation. It is no surprise that the Business Secretary is in favour of making the terms as favourable as possible to business.’
But it emerged that both India and Turkey, which Mr Cameron visited yesterday, will be consulted on Britain’s new immigration rules, prompting speculation that the quota could be looser than expected.
Anand Sharma, India’s commerce minister, warned that a cap could damage relations between the two countries.
The row overshadowed the start of Mr Cameron’s first official trip to India, during which he will tout for help from the emerging power for help in dragging Britain out of recession.
The Prime Minister wants to create a ‘new special relationship’ with an economy that is booming by almost ten per cent a year.
A senior Downing Street source insisted last night there would be ‘no shift whatsoever’ from the Tory position in the election campaign.