The Conservatives will reduce “immigration overall” to the UK after Brexit if they win the general election, Home Secretary Priti Patel has said.
Senior Tory figures have so far stopped short of making such a commitment before the party’s post-Brexit immigration policy is set out.
Ms Patel made the promise as she launched an attack on what she claimed was Labour’s “open borders” policy.
Labour has yet to announce its policy.
Ms Patel did not spell out in detail how she planned to cut immigration. The Conservatives say they will end free movement from the EU on 1 January 2021, if they win the election and get their Brexit deal through by 31 January.
The party is planning a “points-based” system, based on skills and other factors, which would apply to EU and non-EU migrants.
However, the party is expected to ditch its longstanding commitment to cut net migration – the difference between the number of people entering and leaving the country – to below 100,000, after repeatedly failing to meet it.
Last week, Home Office minister Victoria Atkins repeatedly declined to say whether immigration would be higher or lower under a future Tory government, in a BBC Radio 4 Today programme interview.
But Ms Patel has said in a statement released by the party: “We will reduce immigration overall while being more open and flexible to the highly skilled people we need, such as scientists and doctors.
“This can only happen if people vote for a Conservative majority government so we can leave the EU with a deal.”
She claimed there would be a “surge” in immigration under a Labour government, which would put a huge strain on the NHS and other public services.
Home Secretary Priti Patel is explicit: “We will reduce immigration overall.”
But it is not yet clear precisely how, by how much, or by when.
First in 2010, then in 2015 and again in 2017, the Conservatives said they wanted to cut net migration to below 100,000 a year. It was never achieved.
And that promise won’t be renewed.
But Priti Patel is confident her more vague promise can be kept, by delivering Brexit.
The Tories are seeking to contrast their instinct with what they claim would be a massive increase in immigration under Labour – something Labour say is knowingly misleading.
We don’t yet know what Jeremy Corbyn will commit to in his manifesto.
‘Heed public concerns’
Labour members backed a party conference motion in September defending the right of EU migrants to live and work in the UK, to reject any immigration system based on quotas, caps, targets or incomes, and to extend migrant rights.
But there is a debate at the top of the party over whether to include such a commitment in the party’s general election manifesto, which is set to be finalised at a weekend meeting of its national executive committee.
Unite union leader Len McCluskey, a key ally of Jeremy Corbyn, said extending free movement would not be “sensible”, telling the Guardian that the only beneficiaries of uncontrolled immigration were “the bosses of unscrupulous companies”.
“It’s wrong in my view to have any greater free movement of labour unless you get stricter labour market regulation,” he said.
He said he deplored the Tories’ scapegoating of migrants but Labour had to heed public concerns over levels of unskilled immigration, as it was used to undercut the pay and conditions of British workers.
“If you don’t understand those concerns, you fail to grasp the divisions that exist,” he said.
“If we don’t deal with the issues and concerns, we will create a vacuum that will be filled by a far right seeking to become the voice of the white working class.”
Labour promised to end free movement from Europe – which is a condition of EU membership – in its 2017 general election manifesto, but some of the party’s senior figures want to remain in the EU.
Labour have said, if they win power, they will tear up Boris Johnson’s Brexit agreement with the EU and negotiate a better deal based on a much stronger relationship with the EU’s single market.
Some within the party see Norway, which is outside of the EU’s political institutions but remains part of the single market as a member of the European Economic Area (EEA), as a model for the UK’s future relationship.
But the Conservatives claimed that if the UK was to remain in the EEA, it would have to accept free movement rules and that would see levels of net migration to the UK of 260,000 each year over the next decade.
If free movement rights were extended to non-EU countries, the Conservatives estimated that this figure could rise to an average of 840,000 a year – a number it said was based on “official figures and the government’s own methodology”.
This is based on the assumption that Labour would allow free movement with the rest of the world and that the economy would continue to grow at its current level.
“Under Corbyn’s Labour, immigration would surge, and put huge strain on schools and our NHS,” said Ms Patel.
According to the latest official figures, net migration totalled 226,000 in the year to March 2019.
Although numbers have remained “broadly stable” since the end of 2016, EU immigration to the UK is currently at its lowest level since 2013.
Labour said the Tories were knowingly misleading the public on its conference motion, which has no mention of geographically extending freedom of movement to other countries.
“This is more fake news from the Conservative Party’s make-believe research department,” a party spokesman added.