Rishi Sunak has declined to recommit to a Tory manifesto pledge to bring down legal immigration levels.
The Prime Minister said he does want to see figures fall but repeatedly would not reaffirm the pledge the Conservatives ran on when Boris Johnson led them to a large majority.
Instead Mr Sunak said on Wednesday he had “inherited some numbers” on migration and insisted voters were focused on tackling illegal migration, such as small boat crossings.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman has been publicly pushing for lower immigration, saying more Britons should be trained to be lorry drivers and fruit pickers to plug demand.
But Mr Sunak has made clear to farmers that more seasonal fruit pickers will be allowed into the UK if they are needed.
The 2019 manifesto promised that “overall numbers will come down” as the Government ends freedom of movement in the wake of Brexit.
Migration levels were at 226,000 then and it is expected they will rise when the latest Office for National Statistics figures are published.
Speaking to reporters travelling with him to a G7 summit in Japan, Mr Sunak said he was “committed to bringing down legal migration” but would not stand by the target.
“I’ve inherited some numbers, I want to bring the numbers down,” the Prime Minister said.
Pressed again if he stands by the figure, Mr Sunak said: “I’ve said I do want to bring legal migration down.
“I think illegal migration is undoubtedly the country’s priority, and you can see all the work I’m putting into that.”
Mr Sunak had raised migration with allies at a Council of Europe meeting in Iceland on Tuesday.
The Prime Minister said he had made “another big step forward” with EU chief Ursula von der Leyen to discuss the UK working with the bloc’s border force, Frontex.
“That is of enormous practical value to us in stopping illegal migration – that sharing intelligence, operational co-operation will make a difference to our ability to stop the boats, tackle organised crime upstream,” he said.
“That’s a very tangible result of the engagement and diplomacy that we conducted.”
Mr Sunak also held talks with the president of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), Siofra O’Leary, over a review of the working of Rule 39.
The order was used to block the inaugural forced removal flight of refugees to Rwanda last year.
Mr Sunak sees the stalled policy as key to reducing unauthorised entries to the UK.
The Prime Minister also defended the Government’s decision to house asylum seekers in barges and disused military bases from criticism they are an act of cruelty to the most vulnerable.
“I’m confident our approach to housing asylum seekers is fair and compassionate,” he said.
“I think everyone can see the challenge in communities as local hotels are being taken over to house illegal asylum seekers. It’s not a sustainable situation. It is not fair to local communities and it’s also not fair on taxpayers.
“I have tried very hard to find alternative sources of accommodation to ease those pressures and costs. That’s why we’ve bought barges.
“I will keep doing whatever it takes to empty our hotels and return them to the use they were intended for and to save taxpayers’ money.”
Mr Sunak got the backing of Environment Secretary Therese Coffey in the party’s internal tussle over immigration levels.
She told ITV’s Peston the Prime Minister was “clearly right” to make up to 55,000 visas available for the agricultural sector, when asked whether she agreed with him or Ms Braverman.