Net migration to the UK hit a record 500,000 people in the past year – a figure that 10 years ago would have sparked an enormous backlash after David Cameron’s ill-fated pledge to reduce arrivals to the “tens of thousands”. But two years after Britain left the European Union and free movement ended, the picture is more complicated.
At first glance, Rishi Sunak appears to be caught between a rock and a hard place, with pressure building on the right of the Conservative Party to reduce immigration numbers to retain the support of Brexiteers, while the Office for Budget Responsibility warns that to do so could make the recession worse amid widespread labour shortages.
It is this tension that has led to warnings of a Cabinet battle if the Prime Minister tries to cut immigration, with ministers from different departments likely to want to protect the economy, university finances and Britain’s soft power.
But yesterday’s startling net migration figure of 504,000 is still not enough to force the Prime Minister to act immediately. This is because it seems to be a freak occurrence, driven by the UK’s generosity to those fleeing war in Ukraine, turmoil in Afghanistan and Hong Kong and the release of pent-up demand following the lifting of Covid travel restrictions, and on foreign students being able to physically attend UK courses.
Mr Sunak’s most likely response is to wait for next year’s figures, which will probably show a big fall in net migration given the unique circumstances of 2021-22, in the hope that it will buy him some breathing space while the economy improves to consider how to tackle the issue and fulfil one of the great promises of Brexit.