Theresa May has stood firm on plans to include foreign students in immigration figures despite warnings she could face a damaging Commons defeat on the policy.
The Prime Minister is understood to be increasingly isolated in her belief that overseas students should be counted as migrants in official immigration statistics, a position she has held since she was Home Secretary.
Speculation is mounting over a Government U-turn on the policy, after Home Secretary Amber Rudd reportedly warned Ms May that she would likely lose a vote on the issue when the new Immigration Bill comes before MPs later this year due to her slender parliamentary majority.
However Ms May’s official spokesman told a Westminster briefing: “The position of the Prime Minister on this is clear. The international definition of an immigrant is someone who arrives for a period of more than 12 months.”
Several Cabinet ministers including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Chancellor Philip Hammond have previously told the Prime Minister to abandon the position, which would help the Government meet its long-held ambition of reducing annual net immigration below 100,000.
Asked whether Mrs May was facing pressure from within Cabinet for a change in course, the spokesman said: “This is the position of the Government.”
The Independent and Open Britain, which campaigns for a soft Brexit, are running the Drop the Target campaign against the policy of reducing overall annual immigration to the tens of thousands, which includes calling for overseas students to be omitted from the statistics.
Mrs May has long resisted calls for a rethink on the plans, which senior Conservatives including Universities Minister Jo Johnson and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox warned could inadvertently put students off from coming to study in the UK and damage the successful higher education sector.
The Prime Minister developed a reputation for being tough on immigration while Home Secretary, and has previously argued that removing students from the data could undermine public confidence in the statistics.
While at the Home Office, Ms May led a crackdown on students overstaying their visas, but her claim that up to 100,000 foreign students a year fail return home after graduating has since been discredited as official exit checks found that fewer than 5,000 people remained after their visas expired.
Peers backed a change to exclude foreign students from immigration numbers in a House of Lords amendment to the Higher Education Bill last year, but the move was scuppered by the snap election.
The Prime Minister could be be vulnerable to a Commons defeat on the issue if an MP tables an amendment to the Immigration Bill - after she lost her parliamentary majority in the June poll.
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, who has become an influential figure after reviving the party’s fortunes north of the border, described the move “distortive, counterproductive and sends out entirely the wrong signals”.
She tweeted: “I hope this change happens soon.”
The group of newly elected Scottish Tory MPs are also said to be putting pressure on Ms Rudd and Immigration Minister Brandon Lewis to drop students from the target.
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