Of all the essential tasks facing Rishi Sunak when he became Prime Minister, bringing down the level of legal immigration should have been by far the most straightforward.
All he had to do was tweak student and work visa requirements to ensure a significant fall from the gargantuan 606,000 net migration number bequeathed to him by Boris Johnson. He could then have tried to sell the idea to Tory-leaning voters that a downward direction of travel had been set in motion, with further down payments on the way (as Jeremy Hunt attempted to do with taxation yesterday).
Instead, the ONS has just published its new estimate for net migration in the 12 months to the end of June 2023 and the number is 672,000. That figure encompasses an astonishing 1.2 million incomers and emigration of just over half a million. Very nearly a million incomers were from outside the EU, which is probably not what the electorate had in mind when voting for Brexit in order to ‘take back control’ of the borders.
Startlingly, the Boris figure from 2022 was today also revised upwards to 745,000. So if Sunak wanted to end any lingering doubt and prove that he is the worst politician to occupy 10 Downing Street this century (a high bar) then technically he could now go out and claim that he has not presided over a record immigration volume after all.
Surely not even he would be clueless enough to do that. Yet his central contention on migration – set out in an early prime ministerial interview with Paul Goodman of the Conservative Home website – that the British public are only really bothered about illegal immigration is about to be smashed to smithereens.
Of course, he has failed to halt the illegal stuff too, despite his pledge in January to ‘stop the boats’.