There’s a school of thought that says Labour should avoid talking about immigration because the Tories will always be more hardline on the issue. The government’s incompetence is changing that calculation.
The thinking behind Rishi Sunak’s bill, introduced this week, that seeks to prevent migrants crossing the Channel from seeking asylum seems to be that voters are increasingly concerned about immigration, particularly illegal immigration, and therefore the government should make the issue a dividing line with Labour. The problem is that the bill only highlights the Conservative government’s failure to solve the problem.
And so, at Prime Minister’s Questions today, Keir Starmer attacked the Tories’ inability to take control of the issue in the past several years, highlighting the similarities between Sunak’s new plan and the Nationality and Borders Act passed in 2022 under Boris Johnson. “Because of his mess, there are thousands of people who can’t claim asylum and can’t be returned,” the Labour leader said. “So where does he actually think they’re going to end up?”
The Prime Minister cited the number of Albanians returned to their home country at a press conference yesterday, but the only reason he was able to do that was that the government has a deal with Albania. It does not have agreements with the other main countries from which people come to claim asylum, such as Eritrea. This was the reasoning behind the Rwanda scheme, but that’s been stuck in the courts and so far no migrant has actually been deported to Rwanda. The key question therefore is what happens to those migrants who aren’t deported. Would they eventually be admitted to the asylum system, or indefinitely detained, or left stranded in a hotel? This is a line of questioning that will help Starmer expose the impracticality of the government’s plans.
As for Sunak, he tried to portray Starmer as a “lefty lawyer” and his party as supporting “open-door” immigration. To which Starmer retorted: “Nobody on this side of the House wants open borders. On that side, they’ve lost control of the borders.” That issue of competence, again – especially important with a general election expected next year. Then Sunak evaded Starmer’s question about when the government will have stopped the boats. Sunak is usually praised for his command of details. He was less willing to deploy that skill today.
It’s worth noting the hardening rhetoric – on both sides. “When I was in charge of prosecutions, I extradited countless rapists,” Starmer declared, without qualifying the relevance of that point. Cue SNP heads in hands. The Labour leader has been ruthless in removing any potential obstacle to winning election, from the shadow of Jeremy Corbyn to anxiety over Labour’s tax and spend policies – even if it has meant abandoning his leadership pledges. Taking a harder line on migration is part of the same strategy.