Home Secretary Amber Rudd today confirmed the Conservatives are re-examining their flagship pledge to get net migration below 100,000 a year.
Appearing on BBC Radio 5Live on Sunday, Rudd it was “right” that the Tories “look at it again” in the wake of last summer’s Brexit vote.
But the Home Secretary refused to confirm whether the wording of the pledge would be the same in the party’s 2017 election manifesto, as it had been in 2015.
Despite describing immigration as an “absolute positive” for the UK, Rudd said she still wanted to reduce the number of foreigners coming to Britain.
The Home Secretary could not guarantee that businesses that rely on EU migrant labour will be able to carry on hiring from overseas in the same manner once the UK leaves the trading bloc.
However, in a shift in tone that may hearten some firms looking for flexibility, she said if the Tories were returned to power they would hold a consultation with industry this summer.
Her comments come just over a week after three parliamentary reports warned of the impact restricting immigration would have on the farming, horticultural and construction sectors.
Speaking on Pienaar’s Politics this morning, Rudd was asked if she was “willing to repeat, or want, the exact same wording as you had in the last manifesto on reducing immigration to the tends of thousands?”
After some pressing, Rudd replied: “It’s not going to be identical to the last one. We’re setting it out for hopefully for a five year term, we’ve got a lot to think through to work out what’s the best way to deliver on our priorities.
“My personal view is we need to continue to bring immigration down.
“I want to make sure that we do it in a way that supports businesses, you know we’re ending freedom of movement when we leaving the European Union.
“So the situation from that time, the manifesto…has changed because we’re leaving the European Union, so it’s right that we look at it again.”
Speculation that the Tories could water down or amend their immigration pledge was sparked last month when Cabinet Minister Karen Bradley said “it’s not about putting numbers on it”.
Theresa May swiftly insisted that she stood by her definition of ‘sustainable levels of migration’ as ‘tens of thousands’.
But some Tory MPs believe that the PM could finesse the landmark target pledge, either in its language or timeframe, to reflect the need to square business needs with demands from voters for an overall move to reducing EU migration.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson refused last week to say if he supported the pledge being repeated in the coming manifesto.
Official figures released in February put net migration at 273,000 a year – down on 322,000 from the previous year.
David Cameron vowed to cut net migration to below 100,000 in the run up to the 2010 election with a “no ifs, not buts” pledge.
He came nowhere near honouring this promise in his first five years as Prime Minister, but it was still included in the Tories’ 2015 manifesto.
Appearing before MPs in 2014 Cameron admitted he had no control over key aspects of the policy, such as how many people emigrated from the UK each year.
Rudd was also asked if “those coffee shops, those restaurants, those hotels, as well as the fruit farms in the east of England, the high value companies and financial institutions” which rely on EU migrants would be able to recruit in the same manner they do now.
She replied: “I can’t guarantee that, we’re going to be consulting with businesses over the summer over the summer to find out what is really necessary and what is a nice to have.”
Last month, a report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee warns the agricultural and horticultural sectors “are facing considerable difficulties in recruiting and retaining labour.”
It warned Brexit could make the situation worse: “It is vital that the labour supply available to the agriculture and horticulture sectors does not suddenly dry up as a result of any uncertainty caused by the new immigration arrangements instituted following the UK’s exit from the EU.”
The Communities and Local Government Select Committee warned the Government that “the importance of EU labour to the construction industry should be taken into account by the Government in setting priorities for the Brexit negotiations.”
Ukip’s immigration spokesman John Bickley said the Tories are “lost” when it comes to immigration.
He said: “They know that last year’s referendum result was driven in a large part by our country’s desire to take back control of immigration, but there is no will in the Tory party to deliver this.
He added: “The Tories are so in hock to their big business multi-national corporate chums that they would rather see wages for working people in this country driven down by mass migration rather than acting to control immigration in the best interests of this nation.”