Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson has told Prime Minister Theresa May that it’s time to ditch her “easy slogan” of slashing immigration and have a “mature” conversation.
May wants to cut the number of people arriving in the UK to “tens of thousands” a year, a target pledged by David Cameron in 2010 that Davidson had previously supported.
But Davidson has now said “the British government has failed to hit its self-imposed target in any year”, and that the target should be axed.
“The time for easy slogans is over. Let’s treat the British public like the grown ups they are and have the mature conversation we need,” she wrote, in an article for The Daily Telegraph on Tuesday.
“One in eight people living in the UK was born outside our borders and one in 12 current residents are not UK nationals. That’s 8.6 million husbands, wives, friends, workmates and neighbours who have moved to the UK from somewhere else.
“When we talk about this issue, we are talking about a huge number of lives.”
Davidson further said that continuing with the target would risk damaging the British economy, and that “with the country on the road to full employment, potential for growth is facing ever greater limitations” without the boost from immigrations.
The prime minister confirmed in May that the Conservatives would keep the pledge to cut net migration to the tens of thousands in the party manifesto, in the lead up to the June general election that proved to be disastrous for the Tories.
“We do want to bring net migration down to sustainable levels. We believe that is the tens of thousands,” she told journalists, despite having missed the target after making the same promise in 2010 and 2015.
Latest figures showed that 248,000 people migrated to Britain in 2016, a drop on 84,000 people on the previous year, but still nowhere near the target introduced in 2010.
Labour MP Wes Streeting warned that it’s “time for ministers to admit defeat” following Davidson’s comments, highlighting that a dispute between two Tory leaders of this level indicates that it’s time for a re-think.
Streeting said: “When the leader of the Scottish Conservatives publicly opposes the Government’s immigration policy, it is time for ministers to admit defeat. Cutting immigration in such a draconian fashion would hammer our economy and public services and make all of us worse off.”
He added: “The Government should listen to the voices of businesses, unions and members of their own party, and drop this damaging and unachievable target.”
Davidson also became the latest senior Tory to say international students should not be included in the immigration target. The foreign secretary Boris Johnson has previously said he doesn’t think students should be included.
It comes after Davidson led 13 Tory MPs to victory in Scotland in June’s election, allowing May to form a minority government based on a deal with the DUP. Her growing influence in Scotland has led commentators to tip Davidson as a potential future leader.