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21 March 2024

The Rwanda plan won’t save Rishi Sunak

There is little political capital to be made from an expensive and ineffective deportation scheme.

By Freddie Hayward

Their noble lordships inflicted seven defeats on the government over the scheme to send asylum seekers to Rwanda yesterday.

“Even if flights take off, we’ll still fight the election on the economy.” That was how one government source described the Conservatives’ strategy to me last month. Nonetheless, they said, the government would press on with the Rwanda plan because it was the only way to stop people crossing the Channel.

Last night’s series of defeats in the Lords means the government will not bring the bill back to the Commons until after parliament’s Easter recess, pushing the earliest take-off date to June.

This matters because there is a large rump in the Conservative Party that thinks the route to re-election (or simply non-annihilation) lies in intensifying the rhetoric on immigration and forcing Labour to confront an issue it does not want to talk about. Such a strategy would be confirmed by a commitment to leave the European Court of Human Rights, which many Tories see as the reason deportations cannot take place, and any other international agreement claimed to be stalling the scheme.

The pressure on Rishi Sunak to take this route is balanced by an equally forceful Tory faction that baulks at the prospect of ripping up the UK’s international agreements. Sunak, as ever, is being swallowed by a party that is fundamentally split on the core questions of the time.

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That’s partly why Labour can duck and weave around the issue. No 10 cannot set up the narrative that would make Keir Starmer’s life difficult. The problem for Downing Street is that the absence of real, tangible achievements in how the government deals with the asylum system means the choice is not between tough, hard-line and effective migration policy on one side and high immigration on the other. Instead, the choice is between incompetent management and broken promises on one side and ambiguous but tough-sounding rhetoric on the other.

Ultimately, as the above source noted, voters are more concerned about the economy. It is what will drive – and is driving – the forthcoming election. That is not to say people don’t care about immigration. They do. And it would be bold to suggest that letting 1.2 million migrants into the country over the last two years – the net migration figures from summer 2021-23 – will not elicit some reaction in the future. But that is separate to whether the government can politically capitalise on an expensive and ineffective deportation scheme. For now, whatever happens in parliament, Rwanda is not going to save Sunak.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

[See also: The batsh*t economics of the Rwanda plan]

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