(Bloomberg) -- Rishi Sunak appeared to back down on his Conservative Party’s key 2019 election manifesto pledge to cut net migration, risking a fresh row with right-wing Tories disrupting his UK administration.
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The premier was asked three times by reporters traveling with him to the Group of Seven summit in Japan whether he stood by the promise to reduce the annual migration from a then 226,000. He declined to repeat the commitment.
“I’ve inherited some numbers, I want to bring the numbers down,” Sunak said, appearing to blame his predecessors for both the target and the much higher number of arrivals in recent years. Data due to be released next week are expected to show net migration rose above 700,000 last year.
On Friday, Sunak’s deputy spokesman, Jamie Davies, told reporters in London that the prime minister “remains committed to bringing net migration down, which is the 2019 manifesto commitment.”
Sunak also said he wants to bring overall numbers down. But he added that he was “crystal clear” the priority is to reduce what the government considers illegal migration — in particular people arriving on small boats from France.
“I do think most people’s number one priority when it comes to migration is illegal migration,” he said.
That distinction is backed by the government’s recent moves, including boosting the number of visas available to agricultural workers. Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt said Wednesday the government is taking a “pragmatic” approach to fill gaps in the labor market.
“When it comes to legal migration, the key thing for people to know is we’re in control of why people are here, the circumstances and the terms on which they are here, making sure they contribute to public services,” Sunak said. “Those are all part now part of our migration system and they weren’t before.”
Yet that approach risks fueling the ire of right-wing members of the governing Conservative Party, who in recent days have been openly criticizing the government in what is widely seen as a jostling for position in the event the poll-trailing Tories lose the next general election.
Even some Cabinet members have weighed in. Home Secretary Suella Braverman, herself a second-generation migrant, lashed out this week at the number of people coming into the UK, saying the “national character” is under threat. Her controversial speech to NatCon UK, a conference of the Tory right organized by the Washington-based Edmund Burke Foundation, was effectively staking a claim to the the next party leader.
The row risks undermining Sunak’s bid to retain party unity, which will be key if the Tories have any chance of overtaking the opposition Labour Party in national opinion polls. His pitch to voters hinges on getting the economy back on track, which requires cutting inflation and easing labor shortages.
It explains why on immigration, Sunak focuses more on asylum seekers arriving on small boats across the English Channel — which the government calls illegal migrants — than those granted visas to work in key sectors.
This week, the European Union agreed to collaborate with the UK on stopping channel crossings in a significant boost to Sunak.
--With assistance from Joe Mayes.
(Updates with spokesperson’s comment in fourth paragraph.)
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