Boris Johnson has said international students should not be included in immigration figures, in opposition to Theresa May.
The foreign secretary also this morning Brexit secretary David Davis’ suggestion Britain could pay for access to the single market after leaving the EU was “pure speculation”.
Speaking on ITV’s Peston on Sunday this morning, Johnson said the UK was the “knowledge capital of the world” and should embrace the desire of people to come and study as it was a “massive benefit to this country”.
Asked if he thought foreign students should “not be included in immigration figures”, Johnson said: “I do that that view”.
The prime minister takes the opposite view. In late October, Downing Street dismissed chancellor Philip Hammond’s suggestion that students should not be included in the numbers.
A No.10 spokesperson said at the time: “The government objective is to reduce annual net migration to the tens of thousands, and in order to deliver this we are keeping all visa routes under review.
“Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included.”
The latest immigration figures, released last week, showed net migration was 335,000 in the year to June - the second highest figure on record.
Johnson also this morning said reports he privately supported free movement of migrants were “dud” and that the Sky News story was “a load of old baloney”.
Speaking to the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme, Johnson predicted Brexit negotiations with the EU were likely to “get pretty hairy” over the next two years.
Today, May was warned that she risks losing the next general election if she alienates moderate Conservative voters by pushing through a “hard Brexit”.
A group of former Conservative ministers and MPs has urged the prime minister not to alienate Conservative voters who backed Remain in the referendum by turning the party into “Ukip-lite”.
The intervention comes after the Liberal Democrats overturned a Conservative majority of 23,000 in the Richmond Park by-election with a campaign fought on their demands to avoid a sharp break with the EU.
Writing in The Observer, the former attorney general Dominic Grieve and ex-ministers Alistair Burt and Claire Perry, along with education select committee chairman Neil Carmichael and Bath MP Ben Howlett, said the result must serve as a wake-up call for the party.
“The Conservative Party needs to be alert that there is a moderate core of Conservative voters, who voted Remain, and who want to hear the Conservative government speaking above the noise of the Brexiters,” they wrote.