Analysis

Fact check: have past Tory PMs hit their immigration targets? Sunak promises to keep net migration under 500K

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These are the promises previous Tory prime ministers made on net migration, as Rishi Sunak promises to bring numbers to below what he “inherited”.

Rishi Sunak has vowed to bring the level of net migration down to below the half a million figure he “inherited” when he became Prime Minister.

Sunak has been under pressure over net migration since he appeared to back away from a Conservative Party manifesto pledge that “overall numbers will come down” while speaking to reporters on his way to the G7 summit in Japan. When the promise was made in 2019, net migration stood at 226,000.

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But speaking to Sky News on Friday (19 May), despite initially declining several times to commit to a specific figure, Sunak eventually said he would bring the numbers below those which were reported when he first entered Downing Street. The latest figures on net migration stood at 504,000 for the year leading up to June 2022. Sunak became Prime Minister in October of that year.

“I’m committed to bringing down the levels of net migration that I’ve inherited,” he told Sky. “I’m focused on bringing down the levels of legal migration, but I am also completely focused on bringing down illegal migration - stopping the boats - as I think that is the country’s priority when it comes to migration.”

He also pointed out that there are a set of “factors” which contributed to those “high” numbers, including the number of refugees which the UK took from Ukraine.

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The Prime Minister’s comments come as forecasts suggest that net migration - which is the difference between immigration (people who move into the UK) and emigration (people who move out of the UK) - could hit between 650,000 and 997,000 later this year. This is far greater than the tens of thousands annual target Suella Braverman told a Conservative Party conference fringe meeting she would like to aim for last October.

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It is also far greater than some of the numbers that previous Tory prime ministers have given - including the “lower than” 226,000 promise that was made in 2019. But these leaders pledging lower numbers doesn’t mean they always delivered on them, so Sunak’s seemingly less ambitious target of “lower than” 504,000 could be a more sensible route.

With that in mind, NationalWorld has taken a look at what the likes of David Cameron, Theresa May, and Boris Johnson promised in the past (we won't mention Liz Truss) and whether they actually delivered on these figures.

Theresa May and David Cameron both pledged to bring net migration to below 100,000. Credit: Getty ImagesTheresa May and David Cameron both pledged to bring net migration to below 100,000. Credit: Getty Images
Theresa May and David Cameron both pledged to bring net migration to below 100,000. Credit: Getty Images | Getty Images

What did David Cameron say?

David Cameron pledged to bring annual net migration to the “tens of thousands” - below 100,00 - during his tenure in Downing Street. This promise, although unambiguous, later seemed to unravel, with his Home Secretary and later successor Theresa May describing it as a “comment”, and his spokesperson it labelling it an “objective”.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4, May suggested the government was preparing to admit that it had failed on its net migration promise. She remarked: “When we made that comment, when we said we would be aiming to bring the net migration down to the tens of thousands, and that we wanted to do that within this Parliament – that was what we wanted to do.”

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Meanwhile, when asked whether the pledge was a promise, commitment, aspiration, or comment, Cameron’s official spokesperson said: “There is no change. It remains the objective towards which the Prime Minister and others are working. It has always been the objective.”

What was the reality?

Cameron’s government did not get near the tens of thousands figure. The former Witney MP was Prime Minister between 2010 and 2016, and while between the beginning of 2011 and the end of 2012 net migration saw a steep drop from 283,000 to 161,000, by the start of 2016 it was back up at 326,000.

What did Theresa May say?

Theresa May made the same pledge as Cameron. She said she also believes that “sustainable net migration is in the tens of thousands”, mimicking her predecessor’s 2010 election campaign to cap net migration at under 100,000.

The Maidenhead MP added that she believed Brexit would allow the UK to better limit numbers, remarking: “Leaving the European Union enables us to control our borders in relation to people coming from the EU, as well as those who are coming from outside.”

What was the reality?

But May also struggled to bring the numbers down to what she promised. Net migration did steadily drop during her tenure between 2016 and 2019 - with numbers hitting 243,000 at the beginning of 2017, then 231,000 at the beginning of 2018, and 221,000 at the beginning of 2019, but none of these figures made it close to below 100,000.

Rishi Sunak said he wants to bring net migration below the numbers he “inherited”. Credit: Getty ImagesRishi Sunak said he wants to bring net migration below the numbers he “inherited”. Credit: Getty Images
Rishi Sunak said he wants to bring net migration below the numbers he “inherited”. Credit: Getty Images | AFP via Getty Images

What did Boris Johnson say?

When Boris Johnson came into power, he ditched both May and Cameron’s “tens of thousands” target - and instead pledged to introduce an “Australian-style points system”.

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In a statement to the House of Commons he said: “No-one believes more strongly than me in the benefits of migration to our country. But I am clear that our immigration system must change. For years, politicians have promised the public an Australian-style points-based system.

“And today I will actually deliver on those promises - I will ask the Migration Advisory Committee to conduct a review of that system as the first step in a radical rewriting of our immigration system. I am convinced that we can produce a system that the British public can have confidence in.”

The then-Prime Minister’s spokesperson later commented that Johnson had said during his election campaign that he wouldn’t be “playing a numbers game.” When it comes to numbers though, Johnson did commit in the 2019 Tory manifesto that “overall numbers will come down”. Net migration stood at 226,000 at the time.

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