Rishi Sunak appeared to back down on his Conservative Party’s key 2019 election manifesto pledge to cut net migration, risking a fresh row with right-wing Tories disrupting his UK administration.
The premier was asked three times by reporters travelling with him to the Group of Seven summit in Japan whether he stood by the promise to reduce the annual migration from a then 226,000. He declined to repeat the commitment.
“I’ve inherited some numbers, I want to bring the numbers down,” Sunak said, appearing to blame his predecessors for both the target and the much higher number of arrivals in recent years. Data due to be released next week are expected to show net migration rose above 700,000 last year.
Sunak’s deputy spokesman, Jamie Davies, told reporters in London that the prime minister “remains committed to bringing net migration down, which is the 2019 manifesto commitment.”
Sunak also said he wants to bring overall numbers down. But he added that he was “crystal clear” the priority is to reduce what the government considers illegal migration — in particular people arriving on small boats from France.
“I do think most people’s number one priority when it comes to migration is illegal migration,” he said.
That distinction is backed by the government’s recent moves, including boosting the number of visas available to agricultural workers. Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt said the government is taking a “pragmatic” approach to fill gaps in the labour market.
“When it comes to legal migration, the key thing for people to know is we’re in control of why people are here, the circumstances and the terms on which they are here, making sure they contribute to public services,” Sunak said. “Those are all part now part of our migration system and they weren’t before.”
Yet that approach risks fuelling the ire of right-wing members of the governing Conservative Party, who in recent days have been openly criticising the government in what is widely seen as a jostling for position in the event the poll-trailing Tories lose the next general election.
Even some Cabinet members have weighed in. Home Secretary Suella Braverman, herself a second-generation migrant, lashed out at the number of people coming into the UK, saying the “national character” is under threat.