Sunak ‘needs to decide which side he’s on’ as migration rockets

PMQs: Sunak and Starmer clash over migration

A number of Tory MPs have just breathed a sigh of relief because the net migration figure for last year was “only” 606,000 not more than a million which had been expected.

But to put that in context, 606,000 is the equivalent of inserting a city the size of Edinburgh plus some into Britain with the consequent impact on housing shortages, over-stretched public services and so forth.

The Prime Minister has admitted that this is too high but “not out of control”.

The trouble is that there is no consensus in his party about what to do.

Sunak has found himself in the middle of open door economic liberals and a rightwing of his party which wants to fulfil that promise to “take back control”.

The fact is that while this country needs a certain level of migration to fill jobs, it is being used as a “sticking plaster” for companies to not properly train people already in the country and invest in skills.

That is the widely held view on the backbenches especially among members of the rightwing Common sense Group who, as reported by last night, intend to send a delegation round to berate the Priem Minister on the issue.

To make matters worse 606,000 may be a massaged number. The real number under the ONS’s old system would have been 738,000.

But migration is now the main battleground within the government between warring ministers.

In the blue wall corner we have Chancellor Jeremy Hunt and Education Secretary Gillian Keegan who both would gladly throw open the doors to the country and let as many people in as possible.

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Almost on her own in terms of ministers in the Red Wall corner is Home Secretary Suella Braverman demanding that migration numbers are reduced significantly.

Her strong performance on the issue last week was linked by some to the subsequent attempts to damage her politically with the leak about a speeding ticket.

It shows how nasty these issues get behind the scenes.

The student visa compromise yesterday to try to show the government is tackling this issue was unsatisfactory for both sides of the debate.

It was pointed out that all students need to do to still be allowed to bring extended families is for the university to declare their work as “research”.

Then today a voice from the party’s left Alicia Kearns, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, demanded that students are taken out of migration figures altogether.

The problem comes back to that 2010 promise of bringing net migration down to below 100,000.

The Tories have never achieved it, not even after Brexit and it means that their credibility on the issue is hurt.

As the election approaches, Rishi Sunak is going to have to pick a side in this debate – does he go with his ministerial allies and allow mass migration or his backbenchers and grassroots who want it controlled?

Sitting on the fence with unhappy compromises is not going to be a long-term option.

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