A question mark has been placed over the future of David Cameron’s target of reducing net migration to “tens of thousands” by the next election, with the new prime minister, Theresa May, set to head to Germany for talks about Britain leaving the EU.
Doubts about the target arose after the new home secretary, Amber Rudd, would only say her goal was to bring it down to “sustainable levels”.
Her refusal to endorse the specific target provides a hint that it may at some point be dropped by May, a former home secretary, despite a promise in the Conservative manifesto to reduce net migration to below 100,000 before 2020.
May sparked speculation during the EU referendum campaign that she wanted to distance herself from the target set by Cameron when she failed to mention it in her only campaign speech. She also questioned in a television interview whether it was possible to set a particular time period for the target.
Speaking after May’s first cabinet meeting in No 10, Rudd declined to endorse the specific target in a BBC interview despite being asked twice if it still existed.
The first time Rudd was asked if she could give “a commitment that you are going to get mass migration down to the tens of thousands in the future?” she replied: “Well, what the prime minister has said is that we must bring migration down to sustainable levels. So that is what is going to be my aim at the moment.”
Pressed as to whether the target still existed, she said: “I am going to stick to my comment which is about bringing it down to sustainable levels. That has to be the most important thing for the country.”
When the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, was later asked whether Rudd’s comments indicated the target was about to be dropped, he said his colleague was “entirely right to be careful about committing to numbers” because the government “does not want to be in a position where we are disappointing people again”.
However, Downing Street played down speculation that the target is about to be ditched, saying: “The prime minister does see sustainable levels as down to the tens of thousands.
“Sustainable levels is an approach and a language that has been used repeatedly by the Home Office in the past. The prime minister has used it herself. There isn’t a change,” said PM’s spokeswoman.
“The emphasis on ‘sustainable’ reflects the fact that this is about looking at what is the right level for our country, what communities across the country can cope with, pressure on public services, looking at all these issues,” she added.
May has inherited both the target and firm expectations from the voting public that leaving the EU will be able to bring down net migration.
The terms for ending freedom of movement are expected to be a central issue in negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU as Brussels is likely to argue it goes hand in hand with favourable access to the single market.
After her first prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, May will head to Germany for one-to-one talks with chancellor Angela Merkel about Brexit, the trading relationship between the two countries, the migration crisis and Islamist terrorism. This will be followed by talks on Thursday with French president François Hollande.
During both discussions, she is likely to warn that the UK needs time to consult with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as different industries, before triggering formal negotiations to leave the EU.
At the opening of the first legal challenge to the process of Brexit on Tuesday, government lawyers confirmed that May will not push the button on article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, which initiates the UK’s departure from the EU, before the end of this year.
Sources said May will be hoping to establish personal relations with both Merkel and Hollande to pave the way for open and frank discussions in the months ahead, suggesting she expects much work towards Brexit to be done through diplomacy with individual leaders as well as in talks with the EU itself.
Before the trip, she said she had chosen to visit Berlin and Paris so soon after assuming office because she was determined to make a success of Brexit.
“These visits will be an opportunity to forge a strong working relationship that we can build upon and which I hope to develop with more leaders across the European Union in the weeks and months ahead,” she said.
“I do not underestimate the challenge of negotiating our exit from the European Union and I firmly believe that being able to talk frankly and openly about the issues we face will be an important part of a successful negotiation.”
Earlier, May revealed she will personally take charge of three new ministerial committees – on Brexit, the economy and social reform – to implement her priorities for government.
No 10 denied it was a move to keep tight control on the policy areas covered by Boris Johnson, David Davis, the Brexit secretary, and Liam Fox, the international trade secretary.
The prime minister told her first cabinet meeting that “politics is not a game” and they must get on with the job. “Brexit means Brexit – and we’re going to make a success of it. It will be the responsibility of everyone sitting around the cabinet table to make Brexit work for Britain,” she said ahead of the meeting.
“And it will also be their duty to deliver success on behalf of everyone in the UK, not just the privileged few. That is why social justice will be at the heart of my government.
“So we will not allow the country to be defined by Brexit; but instead build the education, skills and social mobility to allow everyone to prosper from the opportunities of leaving the EU.”
Separately, it emerged that Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem former deputy prime minister, will be returning to frontline politics as his party’s spokesman on the EU.
“Theresa May says Brexit means Brexit, but no one actually knows what that means. Will we be in the single market or cut off from it, with all the implications that has for British jobs and our economy?” he said.
“What does it mean for immigration? What about the Brits who live abroad and the Europeans who have made our country their home? How will we cooperate with our neighbours to tackle terrorism, cross-border crime and climate change?
“With no meaningful opposition from the Labour party, no exit plan from the government, Whitehall unprepared for the Brexit negotiations and, above all, Theresa May’s refusal to seek a mandate from the people for what is in effect a new government, there is a real risk that she and her Brexit ministers won’t be subject to the scrutiny and accountability which voters deserve.”
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