The government is trying to distance itself from tomorrow’s net migration figures.
There won’t be a minister on Thursday’s morning media round, the home secretary and immigration minister will be firmly out of sight.
The reason – net migration for 2022 is expected to be more than 700,000, the highest level on record, and could well be more than double what it was pre-Brexit.
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As the Labour leader put it in PMQs: “If people want to see what uncontrolled immigration looks like all they have got to do is wake up tomorrow morning and look at the headlines”.
There are many reasons behind soaring migration, including schemes helping those coming from Hong Kong, Afghanistan and Ukraine; but the problem the prime minister, and home secretary, face is that they have chosen to put migration at the centre of their pitch to the country.
Suella Braverman’s views on immigration are well documented.
Last week in a speech seen by some as a future pitch for the leadership, she attacked the “unexamined drive towards multiculturalism” and said migration levels are “unsustainable”.
The “Stop the Boats” pledge, one of Rishi Sunak’s top five priorities, has become a defining slogan of this government.
The history of Tory turmoil since Cameron’s ‘tens of thousands’ pledge
Former Downing Street pollster James Johnson says voters have a tendency to view illegal and legal migration together, and there is a “tension” between where the public, and the prime minister, stand on the issue.
He believes, unlike with illegal migration, the government are moving towards a position where “control of legal migration is more important than the reduction of migration”.
Number 10 insist they are committed to bringing down net migration.
The party have certainly been on a journey in the last decade, from David Cameron’s pledge to see migration in the tens of thousands, to Rishi Sunak last week appearing to back away from his predecessor Boris Johnson’s commitment that net migration would fall below 250,000.
The other issue is cabinet politics. The chancellor has already suggested the government is open to immigration in key sectors to help with a labour shortage, a view not shared by the home secretary.
Behind the scenes it has been suggested to me that public backlash to high immigration figures would help Suella Braverman make her case for tougher action on legal migration in cabinet.
Mrs Braverman has toughened the rules on students bringing families to the UK this week, but for some on the right of the party that’s not enough.
Craig Mackinlay, the Conservative MP for South Thanet, says the government “has not got a grip of migration”.
He narrowly beat Nigel Farage in the constituency in 2015, and believes the issue will dominate in his area at the next election. He fears constituents will vote against the Tories because “Britain does not feel like it’s working”.
Rishi Sunak may have avoided a fight with the right after saving Suella Braverman, deciding there is no case to investigate her over the speeding fine row, but tomorrow’s figures will ignite a fresh debate about immigration, and questions about whether the government’s rhetoric matches their action.
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