British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has flatly rejected calls from business leaders for looser immigration rules to overcome labour shortages, and closer ties with the EU to address damaging trade barriers in the aftermath of Brexit.
Speaking in Birmingham at the annual conference of the main employers' organisation the CBI (Confederation of British Industry), Sunak insisted "Brexit is already delivering enormous benefits and opportunities".
Earlier, the CBI reiterated a call for more migration to address chronic shortages in the labour market.
CBI Director-General Tony Danker said Britain should create a programme of temporary work visas to boost economic growth.
"We don't have enough Brits to go round for the vacancies that exist, and there's a skills mismatch in any case," he said ahead of the conference.
"Let's have economic migration in areas where we aren't going to get the people and skills at home anytime soon. In return, let's make those visas fixed-term," he added.
There have also been growing appeals from the business world for a closer trading relationship with the EU.
But when the prime minister was asked whether he was listening to both calls, he sidestepped the question.
"I think the country's number one priority right now, when it comes to migration, is tackling illegal migration. It's stopping people coming here illegally in small boats across the Channel," Rishi Sunak said.
Last week the British and French governments agreed on a revised deal to boost efforts to stop the rising numbers of people arriving on English shores after leaving the French coast in flimsy dinghies.
'No alignment with EU laws'
Some business leaders have called for the UK to rejoin the bloc's single market and customs union, in the face of increased red tape and costs faced by many importers and exporters.
The British government dismissed a newspaper report on Sunday that it was exploring a Swiss-style trade relationship with the EU. Switzerland has access to the EU's single market, but in return has to accept certain conditions on budget contributions and migration.
"Let me be unequivocal about this. Under my leadership the United Kingdom will not pursue any relationship with Europe that relies on alignment with EU laws," Sunak said at the CBI conference.
"I voted for Brexit, I believe in Brexit, and I know that Brexit can deliver, and is already delivering enormous benefits and opportunities for the country."
The prime minister said that Britain now had proper control over its borders and could have "a proper conversation with the country" about the type of migration it needed.
"We weren't able to do that inside the European Union. At least now we are in control of it," Sunak added.
MPs from the ruling Conservative Party's eurosceptic European Research Group (ERG) warned Sunak on Sunday against pursuing closer ties with the bloc.
On Friday Britain's finance minister Jeremy Hunt admitted that Brexit had erected barriers to trade but ruled out single market membership as it "requires free movement of people".
On the same day, the government's official forecaster, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), said in its updated economic outlook that "the latest evidence suggests that Brexit has had a significant adverse impact on UK trade, via reducing both overall trade volumes and the number of trading relationships between UK and EU firms".
No more 'immigration dependency', says Labour's Starmer
British main opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer warned business bosses on Tuesday "the days of low pay and cheap labour" must end, putting him in line with Sunak in this respect over immigration rules.
Also speaking to the CBI conference, Starmer told businesses that a Labour government would work with companies to "help the British economy off its immigration dependency".
Starmer has repeatedly said that Labour, if it forms a government at the next election due before the beginning of 2025, will not support open borders to immigration and would introduce a points-based system -- a policy all but the same as that adopted by the governing Conservative Party.