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7 March 2023

Sunak’s anti-asylum plan may not be as politically beneficial as he hopes

Announcing that migrants illegally crossing the Channel won’t be able to stay is popular, but its actual impact may be limited.

By Freddie Hayward

Migrants who arrive on small boats won’t be able to claim asylum under plans to be announced by the government today (7 March).

This issue has animated the Conservative Party for a long time. The Nationality and Borders Act, which passed under Boris Johnson, already means that those arriving via “irregular” routes receive less support when claiming asylum. Rishi Sunak made stopping the boats central to his pitch during last summer’s leadership contest. Today’s outline is the latest attempt to discourage people from crossing the Channel. And according to the New Statesman‘s polls expert, it’s popular. Half of people support banning those who come to the UK on small boats ever re-entering the country (36 per cent oppose). But that popularity does not mean the plans will work, nor that the government will benefit politically.

Sunak has momentum after last week’s agreement with the EU on post-Brexit trade relations in Northern Ireland (read Andrew Marr’s take on the Windsor framework here). He’s convinced some in his party that he’s a problem-solving PM. As I wrote last week, the deal’s political advantages for Sunak are limited, while the practical benefit for Northern Ireland is considerable. This legislation may have the inverse effect: appease some on the right flank of the Tory party, and the public, but fail to stop people crossing the Channel – at least until the amount of credit the PM receives catches up with the efficacy of the policy.

More importantly, there’s a real chance that the bill will not be implemented before the next election anyway. Planes to Rwanda are not expected to take off until May 2024 – a possible general election date – because of legal challenges. New “safe and legal routes” are not expected to be announced until the Channel crossings are stopped. Whether the legislation can “stop the boats” is beside the point if it never actually comes into effect.

The best-case scenario for the government is that two weeks out from the election, a plane carrying migrants takes off for Rwanda. It could then claim to have broken through the blob of left-wing lawyers and interfering courts. “Let us finish the job,” will be the Tory campaign cry. But even then, the government won’t have delivered on its promise to stop the small boat crossings.

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Read more:

Rishi Sunak needs to learn from Keir Starmer’s ruthlessness

Rishi Sunak has proved himself – but trouble still lies ahead

Rishi Sunak, the man who isn’t there

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