How much do the net migration figures mean these days? The Office for National Statistics released its latest migration estimates today, which put immigration to the UK in the year to June 2016 at a record high of 650,000 – up 11,000 on the previous year. Net migration was at 335,000. That figure comprises 189,000 EU citizens and 196,000 non-EU citizens who came to Britain, and 49,000 Brits who left this country.
But these figures mostly cover the period before the EU referendum. The ONS includes three months of data following June’s vote in today’s release. And the estimates for the year that follows will also reflect Britain’s current immigration arrangements, not the ones that Britons voted for in the referendum, whatever those arrangements may be. Today Boris Johnson is denying that he told at least four EU ambassadors that he personally supports freedom of movement, while it is still not clear what the official government policy for Brexit, and therefore immigration, will be.
So today’s figures tell us very little about Brexit Britain in terms of policy, though perhaps in terms of people still wanting to come here – but they do underline one of the key reasons why Brexit happened. David Cameron made a pledge to drive net migration down into the ‘tens of thousands’, something he was never going to be able to meet, and which arguably would have been a sign of a very unhealthy British economy had he met it. The manifest failure to meet that target was thrown again and again at Remain campaigners in the EU referendum, whether on the doorstep or in televised debates. The May government remains committed to this target, but still it is not clear whether even Brexit will mean it can meet that.