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The Rwanda bill won’t save the Tories

Rishi Sunak’s asylum plan may have finally passed parliament but voters have other priorities.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Rishi Sunak has, at long last, got his flagship Rwanda bill through parliament after the House of Lords dropped its final objections. The bill is now set to receive Royal Assent as early as today (23 April) and Sunak has vowed that the first flights of asylum seekers to the country will take off in July.

In the five months since the UK Supreme Court ruled that the plan was illegal, the bill has become emblematic of Sunak’s premiership. It is seen as both the glue holding his ever-fragmenting party together and the one glimmering light of hope the Tories are nurturing as the election draws closer. 

Whether the passage of the bill into law will help achieve either of these aims is a different question. A question to which, alas for Sunak, the answer is probably no.

Let’s start with the Conservative Party. The Rwanda bill is Sunak’s attempt to mollify the wing that believes he was wrong to sack Suella Braverman as home secretary back in November just two days before the Supreme Court decision. To placate them, his strategy has been to make the bill as hardline as possible, despite anxiety from Tory moderates who are uncomfortable with Britain disregarding its own highest court by declaring Rwanda a safe country.

The end result was a compromise which pleased no one: the moderates resigned to supporting a bill they don’t believe in; the right-wingers (of various factions) still grumbling that the bill wasn’t strong enough. One of them – immigration minister Robert Jenrick, a former Sunak ally, now one of his fiercest critics – resigned in December in protest.

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All this culminated in a vicious debate in January. Over 60 Tory MPs rebelled against the government to back amendments put forward by Jenrick and others that would toughen the bill. In a rare moment of strength, Sunak faced them down and won. While Sunak lost Lee Anderson and Brendan Clarke-Smith as party vice-chairs, it turned out the rebels didn’t have the numbers they claimed after all.

Yet being made aware of this fact hasn’t made the right-wing factions any happier. To their unhappiness, you can add a Budget that failed to change the political weather (despite another £10bn National Insurance cut) and the Tories’ continued deterioration in the polls.  

While they didn’t have the numbers to topple Sunak earlier this year, the group who believe that changing leaders yet again would be less damaging than sticking with Sunak is growing. And they believe that they will have a renewed opportunity to make their case when the 2 May elections show just how grave the Tories’ electoral plight is. 

“I can confirm that we put an airfield on standby, booked commercial charter planes for specific slots and we have 500 highly trained individuals, ready to escort illegal migrants, all the way to Rwanda,” Sunak announced hopefully yesterday. Some might argue that this is itself a fantasy, given the likelihood of further legal challenges. But it is also fantasy to assume that the prospect of planes departing to Rwanda in 10-12 weeks’ time (not “by spring” as was repeatedly promised) will be enough to placate those who want to oust him. It is too late for that.

And – unhelpfully for Sunak given the suite of local and mayoral elections looming – the sense that he has become a liability for his party won’t be alleviated by the Rwanda bill becoming law (unless the Tories enjoy an unexpected poll surge). 

Which brings us to the other part of the question: will flights to Rwanda taking off help tempt voters back to the Tories?

I have long made the point that while the issue of Channel crossings greatly agitates Tory MPs and party members, most voters have other priorities. Polls consistently show a much greater (double or triple) level of concern about the cost-of-living crisis and the state of the NHS. But even among the sub-section of voters for who illegal immigration is a major issue, the Rwanda plan is highly unlikely to do what the Tories around Sunak hope it will.

A fascinating bit of polling, conducted by More In Common earlier this month, asked people whether and in what circumstances they would consider the plan to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda in order to deter illegal Channel crossings “a success”.

Just 10 per cent of people said it would be a success regardless of the impact it had on Channel crossings, 22 per cent said it would have to significantly reduce crossings, and 25 per cent that it would have to eliminate crossings entirely. Crucially, support was no greater among those who voted Conservative in 2019 – indeed, 33 per cent of 2019 Tory voters said they would only consider the Rwanda plan a success if crossings stopped altogether. As a reminder, Rwanda has only agreed to take up to 150 migrants, at a cost of £1.8m each, making its capacity to stop crossings a highly contentious topic.

On the subject of costs, a second question showed a similar lack of enthusiasm. Among 2019 Tory voters, almost half (46 per cent) thought the costs would only be worth it if Channel crossings were significantly reduced, while 19 per cent thought they would never be worth it. Only 13 per cent believed the costs were already justified and just 12 per cent said they would be if some flights took off. 

In short, the narrative that ramming the Rwanda bill through parliament and achieving that first flight is the symbolic victory that Sunak needs is a delusion. Most people don’t see it as a major issue affecting which way they vote, and the specific voters the policy is aimed at need to see actual results – in the form of lower Channel crossing figures – before they feel much enthusiasm.

And that doesn’t take into account the opportunity cost of focusing primarily on this one single issue to the detriment of other policy areas that are far greater priorities for most of the electorate. (For example, the announcement that 25 more courtrooms and 150 extra would suddenly become available to process Rwanda-related legal cases could backfire, given the multi-year backlog in the courts system and the prevailing sense that the Tories have lost control over law and order.) Whichever way you look at it, it’s hard to see the passage of this bill having the effect on the polls that the Prime Minister needs to quell internal rebellions.

This “victory” for Sunak, hard-won though it has been, is unlikely to cement his authority with either MPs or the country. It may well be a symbolic win. But it’s just not clear what it’s symbolic of.

[See also: What on Earth is going on with the Conservative Party?]

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