UK prime minister Rishi Sunak on Wednesday distanced himself from his Conservative party’s 2019 manifesto pledge to lower net migration, amid a growing internal row over the government’s immigration policy.
Under former prime minister Boris Johnson, the Conservatives promised to reduce the net number of people coming to live and work in Britain as part of their pitch to voters ahead of the 2019 general election. “There will be fewer lower-skilled migrants and overall numbers will come down,” the manifesto noted.
But speaking to reporters en route to the G7 summit in Tokyo, Sunak refused on Wednesday to recommit to his party’s promise and implicitly blamed his predecessor for the high levels of immigration.
Immigration is rising back up the British political agenda after net migration hit a record of over half a million for the year to last June. The Office for National Statistics will publish updated figures next week, with analysts predicting that the figure could exceed 700,000.
Asked whether he intended to keep the 2019 manifesto promise, Sunak replied: “I’ve inherited some numbers, I want to bring the numbers down.”
Pushed as to whether he stood by the pledge, he refused to do so, saying: “I’ve said I do want to bring legal migration down. I think illegal migration is undoubtedly the country’s priority, and you can see all the work I’m putting into that as well. But on legal migration as well we are committed to bringing those numbers down.”
Senior Conservatives have this week voiced growing alarm over the government’s handling of the issue.
Home secretary Suella Braverman argued that “mass” migration was “unsustainable” as she called on the government to crack down on so-called irregular English Channel crossings and introduce curbs on legal migration. Meanwhile, levelling up secretary Michael Gove warned that high migration was putting “inevitable pressure on housing and on public services”.
Tory MPs fear that if the government is seen to fail on the issue of reducing migration, the party will be punished at the ballot box.
“People are right to be concerned by levels of migration, which have been on an upward trajectory since the early noughties,” one senior Conservative said. “The past few elections it is all that people have wanted to discuss on the doorsteps, I suspect the next election will be much of the same.”
Yet the government has also come under pressure from businesses struggling with staffing shortages, as ministers balance the political need to clamp down on migration and growing calls by sectors such as the horticulture industry to increase access to foreign labour.
Representatives from the farming and food sector gathered in Downing Street on Tuesday for a summit on food security at which Sunak pledged to invest £30mn in new technologies and increase the number of visas available to the agricultural industry each year by 10,000 to 55,000.
Ahead of the summit, the National Farmers’ Union called for a minimum five-year rolling scheme, a more permanent solution to seasonal labour shortages, which last year resulted in £60mn of wasted produce due to a lack of fruit and vegetable pickers.
“Farming is a long term game and if you can’t plan ahead and guarantee you’ll get the labour you need, you won’t plant the crop in the first place,” said David Exwood, the NFU’s vice-president.
Downing Street said on Wednesday the announcement on visas was aimed at giving businesses “clarity” over staffing.
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, who has resisted Home Office pressure to curb the number of international students, said at a British Chambers of Commerce event on Wednesday that the government had, since the Brexit vote, been “pragmatic when it comes to immigration requirements”.