Culture Secretary Karen Bradley, a close ally of the Prime Minister, appeared to suggest there will be no specific promise on immigration levels in the Conservative manifesto.
Business leaders welcomed her comments as a sign that Theresa May will not endanger the economy by attempting to cut net immigration below 100,000.
But Ukip’s former leader Nigel Farage said voters and sections of the media were being “conned” by Conservative rhetoric about taking control of borders.
In other key developments today, Jeremy Corbyn made his first set piece election speech, pledging to give people “real control” over their lives.
But shadow chancellor John McDonnell came under fire from the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies over his claims that those on middle and low incomes had borne the brunt of tax rises.
Mr Farage, meanwhile, warned beleaguered Ukip leader Paul Nuttall he had six weeks to prove himself in the party’s top job.
Interviewed on Sky News, Mrs Bradley was asked if the Tories still thought that cutting immigration to the “tens of thousands” was achievable. She replied: “What we need is to have the right people, to attract the brightest and best. It’s not about putting numbers on it, it’s about making sure that we can deliver where industry needs skills, where the brightest and best want to come to Britain.
“We want to be an attractive place that people want to come and work, to deliver that strong economy that pays for those public services that we all value so much.” The comments are another sign that Downing Street is rowing back on so-called “hard Brexit” commitments which could, for example, mean extending European free movement rules by up to three years after Britain leaves the EU.
Sean McKee, policy director of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, was pleased. He said: “We absolutely agree that securing the skills for London is not about numbers. It is about securing the skills that the UK and London needs.” Tory Right-wingers were giving Mrs May the benefit of the doubt this morning. Brexit-backing MP Philip Davies said Mrs Bradley’s comments showed the Government was wary of “over-promising”. He added: “It is obviously essential that immigration comes down. That’s one of the reasons people voted to leave the EU.”
Tory Right-winger Peter Bone MP said he was not alarmed, and it was sensible to allow “doctors and nurses” to come in to staff the NHS, for example. He added: “I think that my people expect immigration to fall substantially.”
But Mr Farage told the Standard: “It is a total deception. On the one hand we have the Daily Mail saying she is going to end free movement and sound more Ukip than Ukip. On the other hand, we have clear concessions being made. I even heard David Davis saying free movement could last years. It is all a massive con.”
The Daily Mail today hailed “Theresa’s cast-iron Brexit pledges” in a front page story, quoting sources saying the manifesto will commit the party to “ending EU free movement”, though without putting a date on it. Mrs May was asked yesterday about comments by Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, who spoke of “compromises” on European rules. The Premier asked voters “to put their trust in me”.
Labour MP Chuka Umunna said Mrs May should lose no time in abandoning David Cameron’s aim of cutting numbers to the tens of thousands. “She should have dropped that ludicrous pledge when she became Tory leader. It is unachievable and it undermines trust in the system when, year after year, they fail to meet the target.”
Although ministers stress they will have “control over numbers after Brexit, official figures show that non-EU immigration — over which the Government already has full control — has been massively above target for years. In the year to September 2016, net immigration stood at 273,000. That comprised 165,000 EU citizens, who enjoy free movement, and 164,000 non-EU citizens who do not.
The Government has now floated the idea of a “barista visa” to let young people from abroad continue to come to the UK for up to two years. Mrs May is also reportedly ready to take foreign student numbers out of immigration figures. She today opened Brexit talks at No 10 with the president of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani. They discussed red lines being set by MEPs including demands for the UK to meet EU “financial obligations” before trade talks.