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14 December 2022

Will the Tories ever resolve their internal battle on immigration?

However far Rishi Sunak goes to placate the right of his party, there will always be calls for him to go further.

By Zoë Grünewald

Once again it seems the Prime Minister is at the mercy of the Tory right.

On Tuesday (13 December) Rishi Sunak revealed his new five-point plan to deal with illegal immigration and the ever-mounting backlog of asylum applications. He promised more staff across the asylum system, a small boat command to survey the Channel for migrant crossings, improved infrastructure to help law enforcement crack down on migrants working illegally, and specific measures to tighten controls around Albanian migration.

For many in his party, Sunak’s announcement shows that the government is willing to deal with a divisive political issue that is rapidly rising up the public’s list of priorities. They view it as a concerted attempt to restore the Conservative’s electoral credibility. His colleagues rallied around him in support, both in the Commons and out of it. Sir Peter Bottomley, the longest-serving MP, told the House that “most people listening to this debate […] will say yes it is necessary, it will work and it should go ahead”.

In Sunak’s trailing of the announcement, it was clear he was speaking to the right of his party. He hit out at human rights lawyers who he claimed made “spurious” legal challenges, and said he “shared” the public’s frustration and anger over illegal migration.

But the Prime Minister’s attempts at placation have not been entirely successful. Sir Edward Leigh, a senior backbencher, asked Sunak to promise that the government would “derogate” from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), should lawyers continue to “trump” new legislation via appeals to the court. Jonathan Gullis, a former minister, has submitted a ten-minute rule bill, backed by the former home secretary Priti Patel and former prime minister Boris Johnson, which seeks to sideline the ECHR and deport asylum seekers to Rwanda. Doing so would probably constitute a breach of international law.

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On Tuesday Sunak recommitted to following through with the Rwandan deportation scheme, first proposed during Johnson’s administration. The problems with the scheme are apparent, however. First, the deal with Rwanda will only cover 300 migrants a year. Given that 45,000 people have made the dangerous Channel crossing this year, this would make very little difference. Second, the scheme is tied up in the courts after the ECHR ordered the first deportation flight to Rwanda to be grounded in June.

For Sunak’s hardline critics on the right, international obligations should be paid no mind. To them, taking back control of our borders goes hand in hand with taking back control of our laws. Having succeeded in getting Britain out of the EU, they are now pressing for it to leave the ECHR too (they are separate entities).

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The Prime Minister, who pledged “integrity, professionalism and accountability” on his appointment to office, is unlikely to want to make such a drastic move, and there are many MPs in the centre of the Conservative Party who would also take issue with it. The Tories are still trying to restore their reputation for law and order following the departure of Johnson.

Could there be a way through for Sunak? The Bill of Rights proposed by Dominic Raab, the Justice Secretary, could potentially solve some clashes with the ECHR, legislating that rulings issued in Strasbourg would no longer become case law in the UK. But any such legislation is a long way off, and recent reports have suggested that Sunak may have been intending to scrap it all together.

News broke this morning that four people died and many more needed to be rescued after a boat carrying migrants ran into difficulties in the freezing Channel last night. Sunak, who told his cabinet a month ago that the UK would continue to be a “compassionate, welcoming country”, will probably be alarmed by how this tragedy looks when juxtaposed with the right’s demands that he tear up international agreements to reject those desperately seeking dry land. But having committed to taking a tough stance on migrants crossing the Channel, Sunak is under pressure from all sides.

[See also: The government’s concession on childcare shows how much the issue matters to voters]