The Government could ditch its target of reducing net migration to the UK below 100,000, Liam Fox has suggested.
The International Trade Secretary said Theresa May’s ambition of cutting the overall the number of people coming to the UK to tens of thousands remained in place “at the moment”.
But he said ministers “will be reviewing what we do post-Brexit” and Britain needed to “match our employment opportunities with our migration policy” after it leaves the European Union.
His comments put him on a collision course with the Prime Minister who has repeatedly committed to keeping the target.
It came as Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, said the UK had faced “bigger challenges” in the past than Brexit as he insisted Britain would “survive and prosper” regardless of whether a deal is done with Brussels.
He also warned the chances of a no deal Brexit were “not negligible”.
The migration target has been a source of political difficulty for the Conservative Party with successive governments unable to get close to hitting it.
The Tories pledged in their 2017 manifesto to keep it and to introduce a system of “controlled, sustainable migration, with net migration down to the tens of thousands”.
But Dr Fox suggested on Tuesday it could be dropped.
Asked on LBC Radio if the target was the correct approach, he said: “Well, that is the Government’s target at the moment. We will be reviewing what we do post-Brexit.”
Pushed on whether he supported the target, he said: “Naturally as a member of the Cabinet I support the Government’s policy but I think that we do need to look in the future at how we match our employment opportunities with our migration policy.
“I think the big problem with free movement from Europe was that people were able to come to the United Kingdom without having a job and they were able to use our public services like schools and hospitals and housing without ever having contributed and I don’t think the British public thought that was fair and neither do I.”
Dr Fox said the result of the EU referendum had made clear the public “do not want unlimited movement into the United Kingdom”.
His intervention comes after Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary, repeatedly refused to endorse the target in June.
Mr Javid refused to explicitly say that he supported the target but did insist he remained committed to the Conservative Party’s manifesto commitments.
George Osborne, the former Conservative chancellor, said in May 2017 that no senior Cabinet ministers supported Mrs May’s target.
Statistics released in July of this year showed migration into the UK was on the increase.
Net migration rose to 282,000 in 2017, up from 249,000 in 2016 while net migration from the EU fell to 101,000 in 2017, down from 133,000 in 2016 to its lowest level since 2012.
EU freedom of movement rules mean it is almost impossible for the Government to hit its target while the UK remains a member of the bloc.
However, the fact that non-EU migration was also above 100,000 shows just how difficult it could be for the Government to meet the target even after Brexit.
A spokesman for the Social Market Foundation think tank said: "The tens of thousands target is a crude political gimmick that distorts immigration policy and warps political debate - voters deserve more honesty about immigration and its importance, so it's good to see that even Cabinet ministers now acknowledge the target has had its day.
“Theresa May should listen to her colleagues, scrap the target and be honest with voters about Britain's need for a sensible immigration policy."
Meanwhile, Mr Hunt urged decision-makers in Brussels to think with their heads as opposed to their hearts on Brexit in order to avoid the consequences of an “acrimonious, messy divorce” which would be “terrible” for the EU.
He said he believed the UK and EU will strike a withdrawal deal but that the chance of Britain “ending up trading on WTO terms is not negligible”.
“As a country we have had bigger challenges than this in the past and we will find a way whatever the outcome to survive and prosper,” he said.
“But it would be far better for everyone if we can do so in a way which allows that friendship with our neighbours in Europe to survive and flourish because that, in the end, has been in everyone’s best interests.”