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May remarks keep pressure on PM

Home Secretary Theresa May has upped the pressure on David Cameron by admitting the Government is "unlikely" to hit his target for cutting immigration.

Ahead of the Prime Minister's key speech on the issue, Mrs May said flows from the EU had disrupted efforts to reduced the net annual figure below 100,000.

Ministers have been privately conceding for some time that the goal will be missed - but the comments are the clearest public indication yet.

The latest official data will be released on Thursday, and is expected to show immigration running at around 240,000 a year with just six months to go until the general election.

Mr Cameron is said to be considering a pledge to bar new EU arrivals from claiming benefits for two years as he struggles to counter the electoral threat from Ukip.

About 250,000 are thought to receive the income top-ups, costing the Government around £1.6 billion a year. But in an interview with Sky News' Murnaghan programme, Tory former Cabinet minister Ken Clarke dismissed the idea as "totally discriminatory".

He also suggested the PM's approach was to blame for the poll surge that saw Nigel Farage's party win the Rochester and Strood by-election last week.

"I do think the tactics of the two major parties of government - the serious parties of government - of trying to imitate Ukip since then have actually made them more credible and has gifted them two by-elections," Mr Clarke said.

"Because we were campaigning in a way that was supporting their anti-European, anti-immigration front running things. "We have probably provoked a whole fresh rash of demands from Eurosceptics in the media and in parliament for yet more demands from Europe and leaving Europe, and all this sort of thing.

"We've got to get back to a serious agenda where Ukip have no policies worth talking about - on the economy, on the health service, on education - and remind people that you are electing somebody who's got to govern the country in the middle of a rather serious crisis still in May."

Mr Clarke said talking about the economy was "a damn sight more sensible than 'how can we be rude to Europeans to cheer up Ukip?'"

"What we mustn't do is keep trailing all kinds of suggestions of things we can think of that might be nasty to Europeans on the benefit front," he said.

Mr Clarke said withdrawing work benefits would be "totally discriminatory".

"You have an Englishman working alongside a Pole doing the same job, they both pay the same taxes - which amongst other things pay for tax credits - and the Englishman gets the tax credit and the Pole doesn't," he said.

"If I was a Polish politician I wouldn't agree to that in a negotiation, nor do I think it is a particular problem, and I don't think it would pacify the Ukip people and the extreme Eurosceptic people."

Mrs May told the BBC's Andrew Marr show that over the past four years non-EU immigration had been brought down to similar levels as at the end of the 1990s.

"But it is, of course, unlikely that we are going to reach the tens of thousands by the end of the parliament," she said.

"Why is that? It's because we have seen increasing numbers of people coming from across Europe, partly because our economy is doing better than other economies in Europe."

She said the Government had been doing "what we can" with EU migration and insisted that the principle of free movement of labour had to be up for grabs in the Tories' mooted renegotiation of British membership terms.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said the net migration target was "in tatters".

"The Prime Minister promised 'no ifs no buts' to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands and Theresa May has spent four years claiming she was on track," she said.

"Net migration is now more than twice her target and rising - and she has finally been forced to admit her target is 'unlikely'.

"Continually making and breaking grand promises on immigration is only undermining confidence in the entire system.

"At the same time, the Home Secretary has failed to deal with the serious problems people are worried about - so fewer foreign criminals are being deported, action on illegal immigration has got worse and nothing is being done to stop exploitation of immigration undercutting local wages, job and businesses."

Senior Tory backbencher David Davis said the main parties would have to do "more than one speech" to persuade voters that they understood their problems and that they would keep their word.

Referring to benefit payments, the MP for Haltemprice and Howden told BBC Radio 4's The World This Weekend: "If I were in his position I would be saying, 'okay, that''s a first step, but what we're doing is we're trying to negotiate with Europe to get them to put a proper limitation on free movement of peoples'."

He added: "I think he should say if we don't get what we want, then I am willing to recommend departure, recommend leaving.

"I don't want to leave but I think that if the negotiation doesn't deliver some quite big things, bigger than anything that's been asked for so far, then leaving is probably the best of the options."

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