Rishi Sunak won’t commit to bringing immigration down to 2019 Tory manifesto pledge levels

The Prime Minister was questioned by journalists on his way to Japan for the G7 summit

Rishi Sunak has declined to recommit to a pledge the Conservatives made in their last election manifesto to reduce legal immigration.

Figures out next week are expected to show a significant increase in migration - and the Prime Minister is coming under pressure from senior figures in his own party to toughen up his approach to the issue.

What did the last manifesto say?

The 2019 manifesto - that saw Boris Johnson elected to Downing Street - promised that overall immigration numbers would “come down” as Brexit brought freedom of movement to an end.

At the time, net migration - the gap between the number of people leaving the UK and the number entering - stood at 226,000. The latest available figures show that in the year to June 2022, it had risen to a record high of 504,000.

Next Thursday (May 25), the Office for National Statistics will publish net migration numbers for the 12 months to the end of 2022. Analysis by the centre-right think tank the Centre for Policy Studies suggests they could hit between 700,000 and 997,000.


What has the PM said?

Speaking to journalists as he travelled to Japan ahead of a summit of world leaders, Sunak said he was “committed to bringing down legal migration” but wouldn’t stand by the earlier 226,000 target. He said he had “inherited some numbers” but that “illegal migration” was “undoubtedly the country’s priority”. People who come to the UK illegally are not included in the net migration figures.

Rishi Sunak is in Japan for the G7 summit Rishi Sunak is in Japan for the G7 summit
Rishi Sunak is in Japan for the G7 summit

Stopping small boat crossings across the English Channel was one of five pledges the PM made at the start of the year - but plans to send those coming to the UK illegally to Rwanda or another third country have been held up in the courts.

On Tuesday (May 16), Sunak used an appearance at the Council of Europe in Iceland to call on the European Court of Human Rights to review the rules that saw the first deportation flight to Rwanda blocked last year.


Rishi Sunak has staked quite a bit of political capital on his pledge to “stop the boats”. But this commitment extends only to illegal migration; the net migration figure is currently about 10 times bigger and will likely go up again when we hear from the ONS next week.

This is a problem for Sunak who’s had the minister in charge of the Home Office agitating for a crackdown this week. Yet he knows it will be almost impossible to get net migration back to 2019 levels in the short term - and as the next general election draws ever closer, it’s not a promise he can make then inevitably break. And this matters - according to YouGov polling, immigration is the third most important issue to voters (behind the economy and the NHS) and only 13% of people think the government is handling it well.

If the “stop the boats” policy remains bogged down in the courts, Sunak can - and may - explain away why he hasn’t been able to deliver on it. But when it comes to net migration, he’ll need answers for people who backed Boris Johnson in 2019 on the basis that there’d be fewer foreign nationals moving to the UK after Brexit.

What have other government ministers said?

On Monday (May 15), Home Secretary Suella Braverman told the National Conservatism Conference that the UK should train up more of its own lorry drivers and fruit pickers to build an economy “less dependent on low-skilled foreign labour”.

Since her speech, Sunak has confirmed that up to 55,000 visas will be made available to farmers to bring in fruit pickers from overseas to plug shortfalls in worker supply. Environment Secretary Therese Coffey told ITV’s Peston programme on Wednesday night (May 18) he was “clearly right” to do so.


What else is Sunak doing in Japan?

On Friday (May 19) Sunak will attend the G7 summit in Hiroshima, made up of leaders of the world’s seven leading industrialised economies including the United States, France and Germany.

Before then, he’s been in Tokyo meeting the leaders of Japanese businesses - which he says have committed to invest nearly £18 billion in the UK. The guestlist included the chief executive of Nissan - which has warned about the cost of making electric cars at its factory in Sunderland because of high energy costs and inflation.

Meanwhile the owner of Vauxhall has said it might need to consider the future of its own UK factories unless the government changes its trade deal with the EU to avoid high tariffs on its electric vehicles. Sunak said ministers were “engaged in a dialogue with the EU about how we might address those concerns.”