Javid Hints U.K. Could Drop Controversial Immigration Target

(Bloomberg) -- Home Secretary Sajid Javid declined to commit to the U.K. government’s signature policy of reducing net migration to the “tens of thousands,” distancing himself from Prime Minister Theresa May over an issue that’s at the heart of Brexit.

“I’m not going to get into numbers,” Javid told a parliamentary panel on immigration. “Clearly the government has been working toward getting net migration down to more sustainable levels, and that objective continues and will continue in a new immigration system as well.”

Loss of control over immigration was a rallying point for opponents of Britain’s membership of the European Union, and the pledge by both Prime Minister Theresa May and her predecessor David Cameron to cut it to below 100,000 people a year backfired when they repeatedly missed the target. With May’s government promising to end freedom of movement from the EU as part of the divorce, there’s a renewed focus on the number.

Labour lawmaker and chairwoman of the Home Affairs committee Yvette Cooper pushed Javid on the government’s plans for post-Brexit immigration, at one point asking specifically by how much the EU total would need to drop for the government to meet its overall target.

“I’m not going to get into numbers,” Javid repeated, adding that the government is preparing a so-called white paper on immigration. Once that’s published, “then we can start talking about what numbers might look like -- but not at this point,” he said.

Cooper then asked if the target was something Javid wanted to “ditch.”

“Next question,” he said, eliciting laughter from lawmakers.

The U.K. has seen net migration from other EU countries plunge by more than a half since the 2016 Brexit referendum. Total arrivals of EU nationals outnumbered departures by 90,000 in the 12 months through September, the lowest figure in five years, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Javid has on several occasions sought to draw a line between himself and May’s policies since his appointment in April, including taking a more conciliatory approach to the police and questioning her Brexit proposals. That’s led to speculation he sees himself as a future leader of the Conservative Party.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.