David Cameron was tonight standing by his pledge to reduce net migration to Britain to tens of thousands by next year’s general election despite fresh evidence that his chances of hitting the target are increasingly remote.
The number stood at 212,000 last year, a rise of 35,000 compared with 2012, fuelled by growing numbers of new arrivals from the European Union, the Office for National Statistics reported.
The political nightmare for the Prime Minister is that he has already pulled most of the levers available for achieving his promised drastic cut in the headline figure.
Tougher curbs on migration from outside the EU have had a significant impact on numbers of students and family members travelling from countries such as India and Pakistan.
However, new arrivals from within the EU rose last year by 22 per cent to more than 200,000 and represent around half of the headline net migration figure.
And there is little Mr Cameron can do to reverse that trend.
He hopes measures in the new Immigration Act, tightening rules on migrants’ entitlement to NHS treatment, welfare and housing will deter EU nationals heading to Britain in the hope of a better life.
However, he is battling two powerful “pull factors” – the relative strength of the economy compared with countries in the east and south of the EU and the widespread knowledge of English throughout the bloc.
By far the largest number of new arrivals continued to come from Poland, with increases in arrivals from Italy and Portugal.
An extra 29,000 Romanians and 7,000 Bulgarians registered to work in Britain over the year, but separate statistics showed most were allocated national insurance numbers before border controls on the two countries were scrapped on 1 January.
Also out of Mr Cameron’s control are the variations in the number of Britons moving overseas to work or retire – or coming home to live.
The politically sensitive nature of the statistics was reinforced as Ukip leader Nigel Farage, in his final bout of campaigning for the council and Euro elections, tore into Mr Cameron for “breaking his solemn promise”.
The shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper said the pledge was “in shreds”.
She said: “By making such loud promises and failing to meet them, [Home Secretary] Theresa May and David Cameron have further eroded trust on immigration and undermined confidence in a government’s ability to address people's concerns.”
Mr Cameron made the commitment four years ago as opposition leader when net migration stood at just over 200,000.
It climbed to more than 250,000 in 2011 – the first full year of the Coalition – but began dropping until the middle of 2013. To ministers’ dismay, the figure on the graph started pointing upwards again last summer.
A spokesman for the Prime Minister told The Independent: “He still thinks that target is achievable. That is what we are aiming for. We’re going to carry on working very hard to get more control of immigration.”
But Tim Finch, the associate director for migration at the IPPR think-tank, did not share Downing Street’s optimism.
“This target is being missed in spectacular fashion,” he said. “What the Conservatives are learning painfully is that net migration is driven by a multiplicity of factors, some of which the government can control directly and some where it is almost powerless.”
He said the new EU migrants were “overwhelmingly coming to work, contribute and grow the UK economy”.
Keith Vaz, the chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said: “Despite the Government's best efforts and repeated commitments to reducing the net migration figure it has remained the same.
“Controlling EU migration is impossible without reform. It is clear that their aim is unrealistic and unachievable. The Government should drop their target now.”