For the past two months David Cameron has been searching for something to match Ed Miliband's popular energy price freeze coup. And he thinks he has found it on immigration.

The prime minister believes his latest announcement to clamp down on migrants, particularly those set to come from Romania and Bulgaria next year, will be just as popular and agenda-setting as the Labour leader's conference pledge.

His series of measures have already seen a European commissioner claiming Cameron was rebranding Britain "a nasty country". But that is just another bonus for the prime minister, who is always happy to be seen picking fights with Brussels.

Questioned on the detail of his proposals, Cameron told the BBC: "The British people expect fairness". Individuals should not have automatic access to the NHS, council housing and legal aid "unless they have a right to it," he said.

He added that he was confident he would win the changes to the rules within the EU that he is battling for and agreed that the announcement was as much about sending signals to would-be migrants as anything else.

He said there was a real danger that Britain, with its generous welfare benefits, was seen as a "soft touch". "I want to send a very clear signal that is not the case," he said.

But he refused to predict how many migrants might head to Britain once eligible from 1 January next year.

"I'm not going to make an estimate, I think the last government made a terrible mistake by doing that and getting the numbers completely wrong, my job is to put in place the right controls, the right measures, the right processes and then to see how this situation develops."

But it is not just Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants Cameron is trying to send signals to.

He wants his Eurosceptic backbenchers to see him taking on Brussels and he wants possible Ukip voters to look to him as the man who can actually achieve changes. Having Brussels bureaucrats attacking him will be seen as a bonus.

EU employment commissioner Laszlo Andor helped Cameron in his task by saying the proposals risked Britain being seen as a "nasty country". He also suggested the prime minister was misleading the public about the potential scale of immigration from Bulgaria and Romania.

Cameron also wants the wider electorate to hear his signal that only the Conservatives can be trusted to tackle the issue of immigration, which often tops the list of their concerns and which Labour has admitted it got wrong in the past.

And, significantly, he wants the right-wing media to hear his signal that he is addressing one of its great campaigns.

It is notable that the Daily Mail has been running a powerful, front-page campaign over looming EU migration over recent days. Today it welcomed Cameron's proposals under the headline "Migration: I do share your concerns".

But there are serious worries over his package of measures and whether they can all be implemented by 1 January, when Romanian and Bulgarian migrants have the right to come to the UK.

Critics also insist that the entire issue is based on a series of deliberate falsehoods because EU migrants were actually less likely to claim benefits than Britons and more likely to take up work offers.

By adopting his current approach, they argue, Cameron is playing up to the scaremongering which often comes from right-wing groups rather than trying to publish the facts about immigration.

Nonetheless the prime minister knows that, so long as the argument rages, he will have an opportunity to grab back the political agenda that has been lost to Labour over recent months.