The Home Secretary has faced calls to resign after telling MPs her department did not have such targets, before admitting they did exist but she was not aware of them.
Pressure on Ms Rudd increased on Friday when a memo – copied to her – talking about targets emerged. The Home Secretary insisted once again that she did not know about them and claimed to have not read the memo.
Brandon Lewis defended his former boss on Sunday, describing the figure as an “overarching ambition”, rather than a target.
Mr Lewis, the ex-immigration minister who has since been promoted to Conservative party chair, claimed the document that forced Ms Rudd to apologise “did not talk about internal targets”.
The memo, sent by the Immigration Enforcement (IE) agency to Mr Lewis and Ms Rudd last year, pointed out: “We set an internal target of 1,250 of these (assisted) returns for 2016-17… we delivered 1,581.”
It was giving an update on the number of forced removals in the last 12 months and setting out the expected increase over the following year.
Labour’s Diane Abbott said: “Brandon Lewis’ attempt to save the Home Secretary’s career by hiding behind semantics is insulting for the people who have been affected by the Tories’ heartless policies.
“Beneath the spin, he let the truth slip and sealed her fate.
“Amber Rudd knew of the targets she pretended didn’t exist.”
Mr Lewis also told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that Ms Rudd had been right to deny any knowledge of deportation targets broken down by region at a Home Affairs Select Committee grilling on Wednesday.
That too was attacked by Labour, with committee chair Yvette Cooper writing afterwards on Twitter: “Well this is clearly not true.”
She later called on Mr Lewis to withdraw his claim that the committee was only asking about performance or local targets, saying “it doesn’t help anyone and is completely inappropriate for you to try to rewrite committee questions”.
In response, Mr Lewis claimed he was “referring to what Home Sec had in mind when answering”.
Ms Rudd told the select committee hearing “we don’t have targets for removals”, when she was asked when the targets were set.
Asked if he had ever been in a room with Ms Rudd discussing deportation targets, Mr Lewis said: “I’ve been in a room with Amber Rudd talking about increasing the number of returns.
“But Amber Rudd and I never discussed particular numbers in the way that was outlined at the Home Affairs Select Committee.”
He added: “When Amber Rudd says she didn’t see something, I know she didn’t see it.”
Meanwhile, The Guardian has published in full a letter from Ms Rudd to Prime Minister Theresa May in which she sets an “ambitious but deliverable” target for deportations.
The overall content of the letter, dated January 2017, was first reported by the newspaper last week.
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It says Ms Rudd was shifting the focus of the Home Office to achieve the “aim of increasing the number of enforced removals by more than 10% over the next few years”.
The Home Secretary will make a statement in Parliament on Monday responding to “legitimate questions that have arisen on targets and illegal migration”.