Home secretary Suella Braverman has been accused of “going to ground” after figures revealed that net migration had hit a record high of 606,000 with around 1.2 million people arriving to live in the UK in 2022.
The new figures, released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on Thursday, have fuelled accusations that the government has “lost control” of immigration despite a 2019 manifesto pledge to bring overall numbers down.
Senior Tories told The Independent that Ms Braverman had become a “liability” – warning Rishi Sunak that he may have to sack his “damaged” home secretary if she fails to tackle net migration levels.
Despite immigration being one of the home secretary’s key policy areas, Ms Braverman did not comment on the figures or attend an urgent question in the House of Commons on Thursday.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper asked “what is the point” of Ms Braverman. She said: “Where is the home secretary, who is in charge of these policies? She has gone to ground. What is the point of her?”
The backlash extended to the Tory benches. Aaron Bell MP warned Mr Sunak that voters “will expect to see [net migration] fall” given the party’s previous pledges on the issue, while fellow backbencher Martin Vickers said voters’ “anger and frustration will grow” when they become aware of the new record high.
Moderate Tories are split on whether Mr Sunak should sack the home secretary. One senior Tory told The Independent that Ms Braverman had been acting as “a shield” for Mr Sunak, saying she was being used to “take the pain” when No 10 needed to blame the Home Office for the government’s failures on immigration.
The former minister said many Tories were still angry with Ms Braverman for “freelancing” on government policy at last week’s right-wing National Conservatism Conference, where she lashed out against multiculturalism, “political correctness”, and “radical gender ideology”.
But another former Tory minister urged Mr Sunak to get rid of Ms Braverman now, saying: “She is already a liability. Rishi has been generous to her, but she is damaged now.”
Senior Tory John Hayes – a key ally of Ms Braverman – called on Mr Sunak to take “further steps” to cut the number of people arriving in the UK. The leader of the Tories’ Common Sense Group wants to see higher salary thresholds implemented and further limits imposed on overseas students.
Mr Hayes told The Independent: “When political parties come to power on a manifesto platform as clear as a pledge to reduce migration, people will say, ‘Well, did you do it, or didn’t you?’”
Urging Mr Sunak to cut Britain’s dependence on foreign labour, another senior Tory said voters did not like “somebody coming to work at Amazon up the road when there are people unemployed, taking unemployment pay, that could work there”.
On Monday, Ms Braverman announced a controversial crackdown on visas for the families of international students, claiming it would help to cut net migration. The government is reported to be considering further moves to limit the amount of time overseas graduates can stay and work in the UK.
But official figures show several factors contributing to the total – including wider economic migration driven by shortages in sectors dominated by EU workers before Brexit.
Tory MP Alicia Kearns, chair of the foreign affairs committee, urged the government to avoid a “knee-jerk” reaction to the record figures. “Students shouldn’t be included in net migration figures,” she said. “The soft power dividends as an academic superpower are significant.”
The ONS revised its previous estimate of net migration in the year to June 2022 dramatically upwards, from 504,000 to 606,000.
Although they account for only a small fraction of the overall total, English Channel crossings also hit a new record during the year, while significant numbers of people arrived under government schemes set up for Afghans, Ukrainians, and British nationals in Hong Kong.
Almost 45,000 people crossed the Channel in the year to March, with 90 per cent claiming asylum. Afghans still accounted for the highest proportion by nationality among those making the crossing. The asylum backlog also hit a new record high, with almost 173,000 people awaiting an initial decision in March – surpassing a previous peak in 1999.
Mr Sunak denied immigration was out of control when he was grilled earlier by ITV’s This Morning. “Numbers are too high, it’s as simple as that. And I want to bring them down,” he said, without committing to any particular number.
The Migration Observatory think tank said “early indications” were that the net migration numbers may already have peaked and were now starting to go down.
Despite Mr Sunak’s commitment to cut the asylum backlog, his immigration minister Robert Jenrick suggested that processing claims more quickly could lead to more migrants trying to come to the UK.
Grilled by Labour MPs on the confusion – and on whether the government wanted to reduce the backlog or not – Mr Jenrick said ministers did want to bring down the caseload, but added: “The faster the process, the more pull factor there is to the United Kingdom.”
When asked about Mr Jenrick’s comments, No 10 insisted that tackling the asylum backlog is “the right approach”.
Asked if Mr Sunak was worried that his backlog plan was going backwards, the Downing Street spokesperson added: “Some of these approaches do take time to bed in.”