Strong business support for immigration causes more trouble for the Tory target

Businesses voice firm support for immigration at the annual CBI conference, as Theresa May tries to play down the Tories' net migration target.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

On the BBC's Today programme this morning, the Home Secretary Theresa May tried to play down her party's net migration target by calling it a "comment" and an "aim". Discussing David Cameron's apprently impossible promise to reduce annual net migration to below 100,000 during this parliament, she said:

When we made that comment, when we said . . . we would be aiming to bring the net migration down to the tens of thousands and we wanted to do that within this parliament – yes we were very clear that was what we wanted to do.

She was clearly downgrading the Prime Minister's target, which he called a “no ifs, no buts” commitment back in 2011, because it is becoming increasingly clear that the Tories will not achieve such a decrease in migrant population levels in this parliament.

This is an embarrassing story for the government, as a No 10 spokesman seemed to contradict May by remarking that "there is no change" in the policy, although also notably referring to it as an "objective".

Adding further to the Tories' immigration woes today are the business leaders gathered at the CBI's annual conference. During a speech by the president of CBI – which represents over 190,000 businesses – it became clear that supporting immigration into the UK is a key business priority. Mike Rake said:

63 per cent of CBI members say that it has been beneficial to their businesses; only 1 per cent say it has been negative. And it cuts both ways: approaching 2m Britons live elsewhere in Europe.

The economic evidence shows that immigration is of net benefit. EU migrants pay taxes, collect less benefits than British citizens, and many do not settle in the UK permanently.

Immigration has been and is part of the solution to the skills shortages faced by the UK.

With senior government figures such as May essentially conceding that the Tory net migration target is impossible, and business leaders emphasising the benefits of immigration, this puts the Tories in a tricky position as the outright anti-EU party, Ukip, continues gaining ground. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Ed Miliband is about to address the CBI conference with a wholeheartedly positive speech in favour of our EU membership. His passage on immigration will also appeal to the business community more than the Tories' mixed messages today:

I am not going to say we should close our borders. Because I don't believe we should. I am not going to play politics with our membership of the European Union because I don't believe it would make Britain stronger or more confident in the world.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

Free trial CSS