Home Secretary Theresa May risked laying the government open to criticism on immigration by claiming David Cameron's failed pledge to cut numbers was a "comment" and not a promise.
Talking on BBC Radio 4, May said the pledge - made before the 2010 general election - to cut migrant numbers to tens of thousands from hundreds of thousands, had been "a comment."
The coalition government has been held to account on the target figure ever since, while numbers of migrants coming to Britain have remained stubbornly high in the hundreds of thousands.
May said: "When we made that comment, [...] we said we would be aiming to bring the net migration figures down to tens of thousands and we wanted to do that in this parliament.
"We were clear it's what we wanted to do and the reason we said that was that we felt the level of tens of thousands – similar to what we saw in the 1990s – was more sustainable than the levels we've seen."
By appearing to seek to reframe the pledge, May risked ceding ground to Ukip on the issue - and also of being accused herself of mincing words for political effect.
A study last week reported EU migrants added billions to the British economy. May identified people from European countries as the source of the issue for the Tory party. She claimed the principle of free movement was abused by criminals.
May said: "The issue is free movement within the EU, but we've been very clear this is an issue we want to deal with, we think there should be changes in relation to the way it operates. David Cameron's been very clear about that."