Tory Fury Over High Migration Could Overshadow Autumn Statement
Home Secretary James Cleverly and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (Alamy)
Conservative backbench anger over soon to be published migration figures threatens to cut short a positive Tory party reaction to any tax cuts in the Autumn Statement on Wednesday.
On Thursday, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) will publish the latest net migration figures. UK net migration – the difference between the number of immigrants and emigrants – rose to 606,000 in the year leading up to December 2022, according to the last ONS update.
It was the highest number documented since records began, prompting outrage from MPs on the right of the parliamentary Conservative party who want to see it fall massively. Sources with detailed knowledge of UK migration patterns anticipate the headline figure could go up again when it is announced on Thursday, or at least remain at a similarly high level.
One senior Tory said the announcement could "overshadow" Wednesday's Autumn Statement, when Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt are expected to announce personal tax cuts as part of their economic agenda for the coming months.
Tax cuts will be welcomed by many Conservative MPs who for months have been pushing for the government to lower overall taxes. But any positive reaction could be shortlived if Thursday's ONS announcement results in Tory backbenchers complaining that ministers are failing to reduce migration numbers.
"It’ll be an enormous issue," the Conservative MP told PoliticsHome.
"It may well overshadow any benefit that he gets out of a good Autumn Statement."
The PM is already under pressure from the right of his party to take a harder line on curbing illegal migration after the plan to deport people to Rwanda was last week deemed illegal by the Supreme Court. But MPs in the more socially-conservative wing also are very keen for Sunak to reduce legal migration too. Those include Suella Braverman, the former home secretary.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday morning, the Prime Minister's spokesperson was keen to downplay the chances of the net migration figure falling on Thursday.
They stressed that new restrictions on international students bringing relatives to the UK were announced after the period which the upcoming numbers cover, and that the tighter immigration rules in the higher education sector will have an impact "over time".
“We want to see legal migration fall," said the PM's spokesperson. "That’s why earlier this year we announced measures to deliver the single largest reduction of migration ever."
They added: “We have introduced measures that over time will lead to a significant reduction... The changes we have made will have an effect in the slightly longer term.”
The spokesperson said that humanitarian schemes set up by the government to welcome people fleeing Ukraine and Hong Kong had played a big part in the country's higher migration numbers, adding that the general public "understands" why ministers have been allowing these people to come to the UK.
They added that while the Prime Minister is "actively looking" at what more can be done to reduce legal migration, "obviously we have to do that while balancing our priority of growing the economy, for example the economic benefits that students can bring”.
As well as humanitarian schemes for Ukraine and Hong Kong, two big drivers of the record figure earlier this year were a post-pandemic surge in international students coming to the UK, and rising numbers of visas given to health and care workers. The government issued just under 211,000 health and social care visas in the period ending March 2023, up from under 76,000 in the year ending March 2022, according to ONS figures published in May.
Net migration to the UK is generally expected to come down in the long-term as the stricter new rules for international students bringing dependents to the UK announced in May begin to have an effect and the impact of the pandemic on the economy wears off.
But government figures are braced for the figure to continue rising in the short-term, with foreign student numbers remaining high and the National Health Service continuing to be heavily reliant on doctors, nurses and care workers from overseas.
There is a belief that the government announcing in May that it would soon be significantly more difficult for international students to bring relatives to the UK may have prompted foreign students to expedite plans to study here ahead of the family ban, potentially resulting in a surge.
Sunak is committed to reducing legal migration to the UK, but has consistently refused to set out a specific numerical target that he wants to hit. He faces balancing this mission with a national workforce which continues to suffer post-Brexit, post-pandemic labour shortages in industries like farming, hospitality and construction.
Successive Conservative governments fell way short of the goal set out by former prime minister David Cameron, now foreign secretary, to reduce the number to the tens of thousands. Ex-PM Boris Johnson decided to scrap the 100,000 target and it has remained defunct ever since.
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