Why forecast surge in migration figures will be politically difficult for Sunak

The government has been accused of losing control of migration ahead of new figures that are set to be released later this month, Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana has the latest

In two weeks, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) will publish net migration figures for the year up to December 2022 - and they look likely to hit record numbers. 

The figure had already reached 504,000 last time round - for the 12 months up to June last year - but according to new analysis by the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) the total could surge up to 700,000 or even one million this time.

The think-tank has come up with the figures by analysing the number of visas granted by the Home Office, suggesting more than 1.3m people arrived in Britain last year. 

But they are not sure how many people emigrated and whether that remains as high as during the pandemic or if it has fallen back to the rates between 2010 and 2019. 

The publication of the figure - when it comes - will be politically difficult for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

After all, the Conservatives have been in power exactly 13 years on Friday and have through that entire time consistently promised to bring down net migration.

I remember David Cameron repeatedly promising to reduce it to the tens of thousands - even as the numbers ticked up towards 200,000. 

Then came more promises from the leave campaign during the EU referendum. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove said Brexit would bring in a new Australian points-based system that would reduce overall numbers - a pledge repeated in the 2019 Tory manifesto - and yet, even with that new system, the numbers have risen further, apart from one inevitable downward spike during Covid and lockdown. 

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Robert Colvile, director of the CPS, told me that the rise had been driven in part by a large number of refugees being welcomed to Britain in 2022 - particularly from Ukraine. But beyond that was a rise in work and study visas - largely issued to people outside the EU. 

He argued that lots of that could be seen positively, with high-skilled migrants from India plugging gaps in the NHS and international students boosting universities. 

But he also pointed to the pressure it was putting on public services, warning that house building targets were based on far lower estimates for migration. 

The Director of the Centre for Policy Studies, Robert Colvile, told ITV News that while there were "lots of reasons to welcome migration" it has also "put pressure on public services"

There are rumblings of great concern within the Conservative Party as MPs prepare for the actual numbers to land.

Sir John Hayes told the Telegraph that population growth at this level is "unsustainable", arguing that the government needs to act "immediately and radically" to curb migration. 

He is known to be close to Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who will be in charge of responding. She wants to reduce numbers by making it harder for foreign students to bring "dependents", such as spouses into the country, and is hoping the PM will agree to that.

But sources tell me that the Treasury doesn't want the policy change to go ahead because of fears of the economic consequences.

Chris Skidmore, former universities' minister, told ITV News that if the government "seek to target international students" it will risk upsetting the "huge economic benefits" they bring to the UK

But the former universities' minister, Chris Skidmore, argued that international students brought huge economic benefits to the UK - worth £30bn a year of inward investment that helped all parts of the country. He warned that targeting them too bluntly could harm us financially and wasn't necessary because most of them went home after studying.

Mr Skidmore, who is chairing a commission on this issue with other former ministers including James Purnell and Jo Johnson, called for the government to consider taking students out of the migration numbers completely. 

However, he did admit there were some specific issues around a couple of countries, where students were using degrees as a route to try to settle in the UK.

He argued that there was a case for targeting one-year long masters' courses and stopping students bringing dependents with them on those. 

Meanwhile, the government is convinced that the public is most concerned about illegal immigration - hence the focus on small boats. And there was some evidence of that in Bexhill today.

But in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, it was also clear that people were deeply worried about public services and whether an already stretched NHS, struggling schools and housing plans would be enough to accommodate so many more people.

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