General election: Confusion over Tory migration plans as Patel backs away from pledge to cut numbers

Andrew Woodcock

Home secretary Priti Patel has been forced to backtrack on a promise to cut overall immigration, as Boris Johnson insisted a Conservative government would be open to people coming to fill jobs in the UK.

The climbdown came as both major parties were mired in confusion over immigration policy, with Jeremy Corbyn suggesting that free movement rights on offer from Labour may be granted only to the estimated 3 million EU nationals already settled in the UK.

Ms Patel’s comment last night that Tories would “reduce immigration overall” was seized on as an indication that a Conservative government would be committed to a downward trajectory for numbers despite dumping David Cameron and Theresa May’s target to cut them below 100,000.

But asked about the apparent pledge five times in a BBC interview, she ducked the issue, replying: “We will be controlling immigration … We want immigration that is fair.”

But prime minister Boris Johnson steered clear of any promise to cut numbers, saying only that the planned switch to an Australian-style points system “may mean in some sectors immigration comes down” but would allow the UK to attract the brightest and best migrants and let businesses around the country “attract the people they want, whether that’s agriculture or doctors or whatever”.

Ms Patel claimed that Labour’s free movement proposal meant that a Corbyn administration “will not control immigration, that they will have open borders”.

A furious battle is raging over immigration at the top of Labour ahead of a crucial meeting on Saturday to finalise the party’s general election manifesto.

Unite union boss Len McCluskey angered activists by mounting fierce opposition to the stance agreed at Labour’s annual conference of maintaining and extending free movement rights.

But Mr Corbyn insisted the conference motion applied only to the rights of EU citizens already in the UK to bring family members to live with them.

Challenged on Tory claims that the proposal risked trebling immigration from its current level of around 225,000 a year, Mr Corbyn insisted Labour will not adopt “arbitrary” numerical targets.

And he told BBC News: “What that conference motion actually said was about the right of reunion and the right of migration for those who already have settled status.

“We have to recognise there are many people in Britain who have partners who are from Europe … And have children. We can’t stop them moving around. It wouldn’t be right to stop family reunions.”

Mr Corbyn’s comments were echoed by shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, who said: “The Labour Party is committed to maintaining and extending freedom of movement rights. But the Tories will remove those rights from the EU 3 million. We will maintain them.

“The Tories break up families by barring spouses of British citizens via an income requirement. Labour will scrap it, and extend freedom of movement rights to all those legally entitled to be here, including our own citizens among others.”

Their comments appear to point towards a manifesto policy stopping well short of the current freedom for all EU nationals to live, work and settle in the UK.

Jeremy Corbyn on the campaign trail (Reuters)

Labour’s employment rights spokeswoman Laura Pidcock insisted that the issue of migrant numbers was a “false flag” and that the key focus for the party should be regulation of employers to prevent exploitation of foreign and homegrown staff.

Mr McCluskey told The Guardian that the only beneficiaries from completely free movement of workers were “unscrupulous bosses”.

Looking ahead to this weekend’s meeting, he said: “We will have to see what’s in the manifesto, but I don’t think [the conference policy] is a sensible approach and I will be expressing that view.”

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