With net migration to the UK hitting a record 500,000, the Prime Minister will want to see the economy pick up before forcing a decline in numbers
Net migration to the UK hit a record 500,000 people last year – a number that would have sparked a huge backlash 10 years ago after David Cameron’s ill-fated promise to reduce arrivals to “tens of thousands”. But two years after the UK left the European Union and free movement ended, the picture is more complicated.
At first glance, Rishi Sunak seems caught between a rock and a hard place, and pressure is building on the Conservative Party right to reduce immigration numbers to keep Brexiteers’ support while the Office for Budget Responsibility warns that the recession could worsen given widespread labor shortages.
It’s this tension that has led to warnings of a cabinet fight as the Prime Minister seeks to curb immigration, with ministers from different departments likely to want to protect the economy, university finances and Britain’s soft power.
But yesterday’s staggering net migration figures of 504,000 are still not enough to compel the prime minister to act immediately. This is because it appears to be an unusual event, fueled by the UK’s generosity towards those living before the war in Ukraine, the unrest in Afghanistan and Hong Kong and the release of pent-up demand following the lifting of Covid travel restrictions and the fact that foreign students are fleeing, being able to physically attend UK courses.
Mr Sunak’s most likely response is to wait for next year’s numbers, which given the unique circumstances of 2021-22 are likely to show a sharp drop in net migration, hoping this will give him some breathing room while he is the economy improves to consider how to tackle the problem and fulfill one of the big Brexit promises.