Conservative backbenchers said the controversial goal appeared to be “withering on the vine” amid growing pressure from cabinet ministers for a flexible stance on EU migration after Brexit to help British business.
Downing Street insisted that it remained “absolutely committed” to the target. Ms May’s official spokesman conceded that hitting it would take time but said the Immigration Bill included in the speech would enable the Government to work towards it.
However, the briefing papers accompanying the speech made no reference to the goal – unlike the documents for the 2010 speech when David Cameron made the aim government policy.
After a string of Ms May's ministers called for EU migration to continue in the areas for which they have responsibility, Whitehall sources say there is no sign of a concerted drive to ensure the target is met.
The Independent and the Open Britain group, which urges a soft Brexit, are running a Drop the Target campaign calling for it to be abandoned.
Ben Bradshaw, a Labour MP and leading supporter of Open Britain, said: “The Government’s refusal to commit to the ‘tens of thousands’ target in its proposed Immigration Bill is welcome, if it means that ministers are going cold on this damaging idea. Forcing such deep cuts in immigration would leave our public services and our economy suffering from crippling skills shortages.”
He added: “But simply not mentioning the policy in public is not good enough. The Government should come out and say once and for all that they are dropping the target. Instead, they should put forward a post-Brexit immigration policy that supports our economy, rather than smothering it.”
Business groups joined the call for a more flexible approach to EU migration. Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the CBI, said: “If the UK is to be able to meet changing labour needs, a blunt cap is the wrong approach.
"Business and the Government should work together to build a model that’s fit for purpose.”
She added: “A growing, global Britain needs to have access to the best talent from around the world, while continuing to build the UK’s domestic skills base.
“The Government can both control migration and support economic growth. Employers now urgently need clarity on what a new system will look like – such as the inclusion of a preferential route for EU migrants – as it will affect their willingness to invest in the UK.”
The British Chambers of Commerce, which also wants the target to be scrapped, called for the needs of the economy to be at the heart of the forthcoming once-in-a-generation overhaul of immigration.
Dr Adam Marshall, its director general, said: “While businesses accept the need for controls over migration flows, they want clear assurances that they will be able to recruit from overseas to fill vacancies when they are unable to find or train suitable candidates here at home.
“After Brexit, they will also want to see a flexible system for the movement of labour and skills between the UK and the EU that enjoys clear public support. This is also a major opportunity to simplify the Home Office’s bureaucratic processes, which impose heavy costs and great uncertainty on businesses and individuals alike.”
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