Ms May was said to be isolated in her own Cabinet over her plan to reiterate the target, set by David Cameron in 2010, to reduce net migration to less than 100,000 a year. Latest figures put it at 273,000.
The London Evening Standard, now edited by the former Chancellor George Osborne, said in an editorial that Ms May did not need to make the “politically rash and economically illiterate move” of repeating the goal. It claimed her Cabinet assumed she would jump at the chance to bury it, adding: “None of its senior members supports the pledge in private and all would be glad to see the back of something that has caused the Conservative Party such public grief. But no. Ms May has kept digging.”
The paper said a renewed pledge by Ms May as “wishful thinking,” arguing: “She still wants to be a new broom. She should use the Tory manifesto tomorrow to sweep away this bad policy from the past.”
Open Britain, which is running a Drop the Target campaign against the goal with The Independent, seized on the criticism. Peter Kyle, a leading supporter of the group who is defending his Hove seat for Labour, said: “It’s becoming increasingly clear that behind closed doors, there is barely a Conservative minister who thinks the ‘tens of thousands’ migration cap is a good idea.
“The Prime Minister needs to listen to all those on her own side of the argument who clearly believe the cap to be economically damaging and unachievable. In her manifesto, she should do the right thing and drop the target.”
Open Britain released a dossier of previous statements in which several Cabinet ministers pointedly declined to support the target, reflecting the battle about it in private. They included Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary; Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary; David Davis, the Brexit Secretary and Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, who described it as “statistical nonsense.”
Some Tories believe Ms May is sticking to the target to deny Ukip any chance of using immigration to make a comeback now that its founding purpose of leaving the EU is within sight.
John Bickley, Ukip’s immigration spokesman, said of the Evening Standard article: “Under Cameron and Osborne's Government, which pledged to bring net immigration down the 'tens of thousands', with the explicit support of Ms May, then Home Secretary, gross immigration ran at just under 600,000 a year.
“Why did Osborne’s Tories make this promise and then so disastrously fail to deliver it? Were they incompetent or misleading the British people, most likely both. We don't need lessons from a failed Chancellor, who having promised to eliminate the deficit within one Parliament missed his own target by a country mile.”
A Conservative spokesman said: “Under the strong and stable leadership of Theresa May, the UK will continue to attract the brightest and best to give the economy the skills needed while bringing net migration down to sustainable levels."
A Conservative source said of the Standard editorial: “We do not recognise these claims.”
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