Suella Braverman leads Tory revolt as pressure grows on Rishi Sunak amid record immigration figures

23 November 2023, 23:37

Mr Sunak is facing growing pressure to clamp down on migration
Mr Sunak is facing growing pressure to clamp down on migration. Picture: Alamy/ONS

By Kit Heren

Rishi Sunak is facing mounting pressure from within his own party to cut migration after official figures showed new arrivals in the UK had soared, with Suella Braverman leading the Conservative rebellion.

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ONS figures released on Thursday showed that in the year to December 2022, 745,000 migrants arrived in the UK, an increase of 139,000 people.

The figures for the year to June 2023 hit 672,000 - up from 607,000 in the previous 12 months, but slightly down on the revised December record, caused by a drop in humanitarian arrivals, including from Ukraine and Hong Kong.

A total of 1.18 million people are estimated to have arrived in the UK in the year to June 2023 while 508,000 are likely to have left - a difference of 672,000. The Conservatives pledged to reduce migration in the 2019 manifesto - but numbers have instead soared.

Downing Street said in response that immigration figures needed to be cut, but that it was working to bring them down.

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Suella Braverman
Suella Braverman. Picture: Alamy

Ms Braverman, the former Home Secretary whose brief includes migration, said the numbers were "unsustainable" and called on the government to "act now" over new arrivals.

She said the figures were "a slap in the face to the British public who have voted to control and reduce migration at every opportunity".

Ms Braverman said: "The pressure on housing, the NHS, schools, wages, and community cohesion, is unsustainable. When do we say: enough is enough?"

Tory MP discusses migration with Andrew Marr

She said she had pushed for measures including a cap on annual net inflows, ending the graduate visa route, and capping health and social care visas.

Other Conservatives also criticised the government for the immigration figures.

Miriam Cates, the leader of the New Conservatives group of anti-immigration Tory MPs, said the broken promise might constitute an "existential threat" to the party.

She told LBC's Andrew Marr: "Having voted for Brexit in 2016, having won an election on the basis of taking back control of our borders, we found that what we lost in EU migration, we have more than made up for in non-EU migration, which we do have control over.

"And the problem is that we haven't exercised that control. I think, in every single Conservative manifesto since 1992, we have committed to bringing down migration. What is the democratic consequence of not listening to people for 30 years?"

Immigration has soared in recent years
Immigration has soared in recent years. Picture: Alamy

When Andrew replied that the consequences could be "existential", Ms Cates replied: "Potentially, yes."

The Penistone and Stocksbridge MP pointed to far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders' success in his country's elections on Wednesday as an example of European voters wanting lower immigration.

But the government "does have one last chance", Ms Cates said. "It can change the rules. This isn't like illegal migration, which is is admittedly much more difficult to solve. We can solve this.

"This is just about the rules on work visas, on student visas, on dependent visas, and how many we choose to grant so we can sort this out."

Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak. Picture: Getty

The New Conservatives warned earlier that the migrant figures showed it was "do or die" time. 

“High rates of immigration depress wages, reduce investment in skills and technology, put unsustainable pressure on housing and public services, and threaten community cohesion. “The word ‘existential’ has been used a lot in recent days but this really is ‘do or die’ for our party," they said in a statement.

Former Cabinet minister Sir Simon Clarke tweeted: "This level of legal immigration is unsustainable both economically and socially. There is no public mandate for it, it is beyond our public services' capacity to support and it undercuts UK productivity and wages by substituting cheaper foreign labour.

"We need an urgent change of approach. The earnings threshold for visa applications needs to be raised significantly. The shortage occupations list needs to be radically descoped. As set out by the Chancellor, we need to ensure more Britons are supported into work."

Sir Keir Starmer told LBC that the net migration figures are “shockingly high”
Sir Keir Starmer told LBC that the net migration figures are “shockingly high”. Picture: LBC

Mr Sunak also came under fire from the opposition benches.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told LBC that the net migration figures are “shockingly high”

Speaking from Tilbury Freeport on Thursday, the Labour leader said: “it’s a failure of immigration, a failure of asylum, and a failure on the economy”

“These are shocking figures, a failure on all three fronts”

Levels of net migration have varied sharply in recent years.

The figure stood at an estimated 93,000 in the year to December 2020, when restrictions introduced during the Covid pandemic limited travel and movement.

It then rose to 466,000 in the year to December 2021, before jumping to a record 745,000 in the year to December 2022.

The most recent estimate of 672,000, for the 12 months to June 2023, is up from 607,000 in the 12 months to June 2022.

The rise in non-EU immigration in the year ending June 2023 was mainly driven by migrants coming for work, the ONS said.

This was up to 33% from 23% in year ending June 2022 and can be largely attributed to people arriving on health and care visas, the statistics body said.

People arriving on humanitarian routes fell from 19% to 9% over the same period, the ONS said.

The majority of these were Ukrainians and British Nationals (Overseas).

An estimated 80,000 people arrived long-term on these visas, of which 47,000 were BN(O) and 33,000 were Ukrainians.

Those arriving long-term on Ukraine visa schemes peaked in the year ending December 2022 at 109,000, the ONS said.

The Office for National Statistics said patterns and behaviours of migrants have been changing post-pandemic, with more students arriving, and staying longer.

The ONS's Jay Lindop said: "Net migration to the UK has been running at record levels, driven by a rise in people coming for work, increasing numbers of students and a series of world events.

"Before the pandemic, migration was relatively stable but patterns and behaviours have been shifting considerably since then.

"More recently, we're not only seeing more students arrive, but we can also see they're staying for longer. More dependants of people with work and study visas have arrived too, and immigration is now being driven by non-EU arrivals.

"The latest numbers are higher than 12 months ago but are down slightly on our updated figures for year ending December 2022. It is too early to say if this is the start of a new downward trend."

Responding to the net migration figures, Home Secretary James Cleverly said: "We do need to reduce our overall numbers by eliminating the abuse and exploitation of our visa system by both companies and individuals.

"We have taken tough action to reduce migration, by tackling the substantial rise in the number of students bringing dependants to the UK - a change that will have a tangible impact on net migration. Around 154,000 visas were granted to dependants of sponsored students in the year ending June 2023.

"And we are working across government on further measures to prevent exploitation and manipulation of our visa system, including clamping down on those that take advantage of the flexibility of the immigration system.

"We will announce details of those measures in due course."