Pressure on Theresa May to ditch her discredited immigration target intensifies today as Labour throws its full weight behind The Independent’s campaign to abolish it.
Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott branded the target to lower immigration to the “tens of thousands” as “illogical, unworkable and a distraction”.
She went on to accuse the Prime Minister of suppressing a government study, first uncovered by The Independent, that points to the positive impacts of immigration on the economy and public services.
Ms May’s determination to stick to the target has left her isolated in her own Cabinet, with several ministers pushing for changes that would alter the way immigration figures are calculated.
But despite increasing pressure to use the new Tory election manifesto as an opportunity to ditch the target, Ms May has until now refused to budge and even took to the airwaves this evening to recommit to it.
The Independent launched the Drop the Target campaign alongside the Open Britain group, which is also urging the Government to abandon its goal.
Backing the campaign, Ms Abbott said: “The target is illogical, unworkable and a distraction from the real problems people are facing in terms of living standards, the NHS, public services, housing and so on.
“Theresa May is isolated on this ridiculous policy and the more rational argument is aired, the better.”
She told The Independent the Government’s goal was “a campaign, not a policy”, warning that it could cost the Prime Minister “her cherished reputation for straight dealing” because it would never actually be achieved.
She demanded Ms May “come clean” with the British public and say that leaving the EU would not lead to a sharp decline in numbers of migrants coming in.
Instead, Ms Abbott argued ministers were slowly accepting the reality that Britain’s trading partners will insist on freer migration rules.
She said: “This will be the case with the EU, with the US, with Canada or anyone else.
“When Theresa May went to India she refused to move on the issue of more business visas and more student visas. As a result, she came away empty-handed. There was no significant trade deal.”
Pointing that the Government has always been in charge of non-EU migration, which stands at more than 100,000 a year, she added: “The reality is we need migration.
“The Government isn’t investing in the NHS, schools, public services and homes that a growing population needs and which would share the benefits of immigration more widely. Instead, we have a bad faith campaign against migration while immigration numbers are at an all-time high.”
A string of senior cabinet ministers – including Chancellor Philip Hammond, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox – have either hinted or said openly that overseas students should be not be counted in the migration statistics as Ms May attempts to lower the figures.
The change to the way net migration is calculated has also been backed by universities and business groups who point to the huge economic benefits foreign students bring, but going way back to her time at the Home Office Ms May has resisted the change, believing that voters may see it as an attempt to fiddle the data.
Other cabinet ministers are understood to be urging Ms May to abandon the goal altogether on the grounds that it is unlikely to be met.
One senior Tory said: “There is a live debate about it. The manifesto is an opportunity to change what was David Cameron’s target, not Theresa May’s.”
On Thursday Culture Secretary Karen Bradley, a close ally of Ms May, hinted the target might be dropped when she told Sky News: “It’s not about putting numbers on it, it’s about making sure we can deliver where industries need skills.”
Later Ms Bradley's spokesman insisted she was not speculating about next month’s manifesto, clarifying that “we are committed to reducing net migration to sustainable levels. We have always been clear that means the tens of thousands.”
In an interview later in the day, Ms May parroted the line saying: “We’ve been very clear, as I was as Home Secretary for six years, that it’s important that we have net migration that is in sustainable numbers. We believe sustainable numbers are the tens of thousands.”
Some ministers believe the Prime Minister will stick to the target to show voters she is tougher than Labour on the issue, and determined to bring down net migration, which stood at 273,000 in the year to last September.
However, Ms Abbott called for an honest debate about the benefits of migration and accused the Government of suppressing its own study pointing to a positive impact on the economy and public services.
She urged ministers to publish a Cabinet Office report suggesting that Ms May blocked a cross-departmental drive to highlight the benefits of migration when she was Home Secretary last year.
The Labour frontbencher said: “This raises serious questions about the Prime Minister’s motivation. She has suppressed analysis which highlights the positive impact of immigration.”
The report, revealed by The Independent earlier this month, cited experts who found that migration is “broadly positive” for the economy and that EU migration is likely to make a positive contribution to the public finances.
Ms Abbott pointed to recent suggestions by cabinet ministers that leaving the EU would not necessarily reduce migration from the bloc because the UK would still need migrant labour. She said this showed that promises on immigration made by the Leave camp in last year’s referendum were false.
“There are very serious risks attached to Government policy, which affect virtually all sectors of the economy,” she said.
“We have heard from the City and from the NHS and social care, from car makers and farmers and many others that they will be in serious difficulties without continued migration from the EU and elsewhere. The NHS would be placed under enormous strain without the contribution of workers from overseas, the crops could literally stay in the ground, our leading firms could decide to relocate. Jobs are at stake.”
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