Theresa May has issued the clearest declaration by the government yet that it will fail to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands by the general election next year.
In a blow to David Cameron, who issued a “no ifs, no buts” pledge to meet the target, the home secretary said it was “unlikely” the government would achieve that goal.
Speaking on the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1, May said: “It is of course unlikely that we are going to reach the tens of thousands by the end of the parliament. Why is that? It is because we have seen increasing numbers of people coming from across Europe, partly because our economy is doing better than other economies across Europe.
“We have been doing what we can in relation to EU migration but there is more to be done,” she said.
Ministers have said in private for more than a year that they have no expectation of meeting the prime minister’s pledge to bring immigration below 100,000 by the time of the election.
May’s intervention comes as the prime minister prepares to deliver a long-awaited speech on immigration. The Sunday Times reported that he is expected to draw on proposals by the Open Europe thinktank to block access to in-work benefits, such as tax credits, to EU migrants for two years.
Downing Street believes Britain has to block access to benefits and reform the EU’s rules on free movement of people if the Tories are to counter the Ukip threat. The government has reduced migration from outside the EU. But it has missed the net migration target because it has no control over immigration from full member states of the EU.
The home secretary, who watered down the prime minister’s 2011 migration pledge to a mere “comment” earlier this month, made it clear that Cameron would seek to tackle free movement of people if he renegotiated Britain’s EU membership after a Tory election win.
May said: “It is only the Conservative party that is guaranteeing people that if in government after the May 2015 election then we will renegotiate our relationship with the EU. Free movement will be one of those issues that we will be dealing with.
“I believe we can win that negotiation because I see within Europe there is greater mood now for looking at this issue of free movement and dealing with the problems people are seeing in relation to free movement. That is about cutting out abuse. But it is more than that.”
The home secretary indicated earlier this month that there was little chance of meeting the target when she was asked on the Today programme to explain the missed goal. May said: “When we made that comment, when we said … we would be aiming to bring the net migration down to the tens of thousands and we wanted to do that within this parliament – yes we were very clear that was what we wanted to do.”
In a speech in April 2011 the prime minister issued an unequivocal declaration to bring down immigration. Cameron said at the time: “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.
“Yes, 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.”
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