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Downing Street Is Weary Of Tory MPs Challenging Rishi Sunak On Immigration

Conservative party Deputy Chairman Lee Anderson (Alamy)

4 min read

Irritation has emerged in Downing Street after a group of Conservative MPs launched yet another public challenge against the government on its record in bringing down net migration.

The rebels have been met with insistence from No 10 that Rishi Sunak is "striking the right balance" when it comes to how many overseas workers are allowed to take up jobs in the UK. The Prime Minister's spokesperson stressed that the government had to ensure "key areas" had the staff numbers they need before cutting visa numbers in those sectors. 

The Tory caucus of around 25 MPs, including Conservative party vice chairman Lee Anderson, have announced their own 12-point plan for reducing net migration, which they say is too high and caused by current policies being "too lenient". Anderson withdrew from the report launch earlier today, with stand-in Danny Kruger saying the Conservative party vice chairman was suffering from a "terrible sick bug".

An exasperated ally of Sunak said the MPs involved in the intervention, who go by the name of the New Conservatives were "pissing in the wind", and complained that they had not spoken with Sunak before launching their report. "They didn't even bother to do it internally," they told PoliticsHome.

The group, which comprises MPs on the right wing of the Conservative party, wants ministers to slash net migration to 240,000 by the end of 2024. Their proposals include reducing the number of overseas workers in the social care sector, which they say would cut net migration by 80,000.

A former Secretary of State said the New Conservatives' decision to focus on social care was a “ridiculous” because the service is highly dependent on foreign workers. “They are frustrated by the failure to deal with illegal migration but they do that by lashing out and clobbering legal migration, which only hurts the economy,” they told PoliticsHome.

The MPs also want further restrictions on international students, a cap on the number of refugees who can settle in the UK, and to the salary threshold for foreign workers applying for visas.

In a foreword to the report, Tom Hunt, the Tory MP for Ipswich, said that it was time for the Conservatives to "honour" their 2019 general election manifesto promise to bring down migration numbers. This morning Penistone and Stocksbridge MP Miriam Cates, a prominent member of the group, warned that "frustrations with democracy" are rooted in the "apparent inability of governing establishments to deliver on the will of ordinary people”.

On Monday a spokesperson for the Prime Minister ruled out making it harder for the social care sector to recruit staff from abroad, stressing that there is a "significant demand" for staff.

"We are boosting domestic staff and backing that with hundreds of millions of pounds in support, and going further in fact with proposals for knowledge and skills passports, investing in training routes, and a wellbeing offer. There is lots we are doing," they said. 

"But right now we think we are striking the right balance between keeping migration as low as possible while also supporting the economy and providing staff for key areas.”

The spokesperson added that the government had already taken "the toughest ever action" in a bid to reduce net migration in May when it announced that from January 2024 only a minority of international students would be allowed to bring family members to the UK. 

They ruled out further restrictions on international students, as called for by the New Conservative group, saying the current policy strikes the right balance between "acting decisively on tackling net migration" and ensuring "net migration works in the best interest of the UK and UK businesses and protects the economic benefits students can bring to the UK".

There was fury among some Conservative backbenchers in May when the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said net migration to the UK – the difference between the number of immigrants and emigrants – rose to 606,000 in the year leading up to December 2022.

This number was the highest since records began, and was driven largely by humanitarian schemes set up for people fleeing Ukraine and Hong Kong, as well as a post-pandemic surge in the volume of international students coming to study in the UK.

Sunak faces a difficult balancing act in helping staff-short sectors like social care, hospitality and construction fill gaps in their workforces, driven by Covid and post-Brexit immigration rules, while also delivering the long-standing Tory pledge to reduce net migration. 

Former Conservative prime minister David Cameron in 2010 said he would reduce net migration to the tens of thousands. Successive Tory governments have failed to hit that target, or even come close, and the Prime Minister has chosen not to revive the ill-fated pledge. 

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