A large influx of workers from southern Europe has dealt a near-fatal blow to David Cameron’s promise to cut net annual migration to “tens of thousands” by next year’s general election.
It leapt by 58,000 to stand at 212,000 in the year to the end of September 2013, the Office for National Statistics has said.
The increase was mainly fuelled by soaring numbers of people coming from Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece, where recession has left huge unemployment totals.
There were also rises in workers arriving from Romania and Bulgaria ahead of all restrictions over entry to the UK being lifted last month.
Migration from the European Union, a trend that the Government can do little to affect, is now at its highest level for 50 years.
Mr Cameron and Theresa May, the Home Secretary, have consistently championed the aim of cutting net migration below 100,000 by the election and have said they wanted to be judged on their success.
However, the figures have climbed for the last three quarters and ministers may even struggle to bring it below 200,000 by the time they go to the country.
The figure has also risen because smaller numbers of Britain are emigrating.
Downing Street insisted the Prime Minister remained committed to his target. His official spokesman said: “That is absolutely the objective and we’re going to keep working towards that.”
But Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, said the promise was “in tatters”.
Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Business Secretary, whose party has disowned the target, said the Tory pledge was “unworkable” and said figures were “good news for British workers”.
He said: “As our economy recovers, fewer people are choosing to emigrate as they see more job opportunities at home.”
Immigration of non-EU citizens saw a statistically significant decrease to 244,000 in the period, down from 269,000 the previous year, suggesting that Government curbs were having an impact outside Europe.
Statisticians said this was due to fewer New Commonwealth citizens, such as those from India, migrating to the UK for formal study.
The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said the figures suggested it was extremely unlikely Mr Cameron would achieve his migration target.
Tim Finch, associate director for migration at the IPPR thinktank, said: “It makes little sense to try to drive down immigration across the board because some forms of migration are clearly beneficial to the UK economy, like foreign students and high-skilled workers.”