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.
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.”
“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 favorable access to the single market.