Home Secretary Theresa May has indicated she expects the Tory General Election manifesto to include a target to cut net migration despite the fears of senior colleagues and its embarrassing failure to meet the goal of reducing it to below 100,000 in the current parliament.
Her comments came after figures showed net migration increased to three times that - 298,000 in the year to September. Former Cabinet minister Ken Clarke called for the policy to be scrapped as it would be "impossible" to reach while ex-Tory party chairwoman Baroness Warsi said it was "unrealistic".
But Mrs May insisted that in the general election manifesto "the idea of the net migration target will still be there", and stressed the importance of the issue for ministers across Whitehall.
May said a net migration target would still be in place
Downing Street insisted Mr Cameron's "ambition" to reduce net migration below 100,000 remained.
"I think we will keep the target," May told The Times.
"It is important because it is about not just dealing with those coming into the system but also about making sure that those people who shouldn't live here actually leave."
She added: "You will have to wait for the manifesto to see the exact words. The idea of the net migration target will still be there."
In April 2011, David Cameron pledged:
“I believe that will mean net migration to this country will be in the order of tens of thousands each year, not the hundreds of thousands every year that we have seen over the last decade. Britain will always be open to the best and brightest from around the world and those fleeing persecution.
"But with us, our borders will be under control and immigration will be at levels our country can manage.
"No ifs. No buts.
"That’s a promise we made to the British people, and it’s a promise we are keeping.”
Signalling the need for a cross-government effort in today's report, Mrs May said: "Obviously the Home Office is responsible for UK visas and immigration, the Border Force and immigration enforcement but actually immigration is an issue that touches across government departments and has a whole number of different aspects.
"It affects issues around jobs, questions of illegal working, access to housing, education, the NHS.
"It touches all government departments and I think that's the thing that's important."
The Home Secretary also indicated she had faced a battle with officials to get them to accept that immigration could cause problems.
"There was a problem with the orthodoxy in Whitehall when we came into government in 2010," she said.
"It was the idea that immigration by definition was good - in that automatically if you've got more people, GDP goes up.
"Of course, GDP per head doesn't necessarily go up - so they didn't look beyond that point."
Former home secretary Mr Clarke has suggested globalisation had made the immigration target impossible to meet, while Baroness Warsi, an ex-Tory party chairwoman, said it was "unrealistic".
Mr Cameron's official spokesman told a regular Westminster media briefing: "You won't be surprised to know that he takes a different view from Ken on this one. It won't be the first time that he and Ken haven't had exactly the same views."
The spokesman said the Prime Minister's views on the need to reduce annual net migration below 100,000 had not changed since a speech in November, when he said that it remained an "ambition", even if it was not possible to achieve it during this Parliament.
Downing Street insisted Mr Cameron's "ambition" to reduce net migration below 100,000 remained
The PM said in November: "The ambition remains the right one, but it's clear it's going to take more time, more work and more difficult long-term decisions in order to get there."
The spokesman confirmed that this remained the PM's view, adding: "He thinks the UK would be a better and stronger country with net migration in the tens of thousands. Those are the reasons he has given before and they haven't changed."
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: "Who is Theresa May kidding?
"Even her own colleagues are saying her net migration target is in tatters.
"No-one will believe a word she or the Prime Minister says on this, after they promised 'no ifs, not buts' to meet their chosen target last time, yet instead net migration is three times the level they promised.
"Theresa May is taking people for fools by trying the same trick again. This massive gap between Tory rhetoric and reality just undermines trust in the immigration system.
"Labour has always said having a net migration target which treats all immigration the same was the wrong approach.
"We need a smarter system of controls for different kinds of migration so that, for example, we can benefit from overseas university students who bring billions into Britain but restrict low skilled migration. And we need much stronger enforcement of the rules to cut illegal immigration.
"Immigration is important to Britain but it needs to be controlled and managed so the system is fair.
"Labour has set out a series of sensible reforms to strengthen our borders, reform benefit rules so people can't claim for up to two years and clamp down on those who exploit immigration to undercut jobs and wages."