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23 April 2024

The Rwanda bill may fail – but it will cause Labour problems

Keir Starmer will be vulnerable on immigration if he enters Downing Street.

By Freddie Hayward

Just before midnight the Lords backed down to let the Rwanda bill become law. It aims to protect the scheme from legal challenges by declaring that Rwanda is indeed a safe country to send migrants. Rishi Sunak has said he expects flights to take off throughout the summer.

This is the government’s third law to crack down on asylum seekers crossing the Channel. The previous two did not work, and it’s unclear whether this one will produce a different result. The political gamble is that flights leaving the tarmac for Africa will restore the government’s credibility on immigration. In other words, proof-of-concept could get them a hearing from a public that has long stopped listening. At that point, it would try to ram the narrative home that Labour will scrap a scheme that shows promise.

If that sounds unlikely to work, that’s because it is unlikely to work. Here’s another scenario: flights do take off and people still try to cross the Channel. At that point, the whole premise of the scheme – that only a few flights are needed to deter people from crossing into the UK – will be exposed as a failure.

In either case, don’t expect a poll boost for the Tories. They have long lost credibility with those on the right and left on immigration. Like nearly all other policy areas, voters think Labour would do a better job. As Rachel writes, the public has priorities beside the boat crossings, namely the cost-of-living crisis. That does not mean illegal immigration doesn’t matter. It does. But deporting a few hundred people amid a backlog of 50,000, with little time before the election, will not persuade sufficient numbers to turn the Tories’ fortunes around.

Which will be small consolation to those Conservative MPs nervously eyeing Reform’s healthy poll figures. I remember writing during the rebels’ long campaign to remove Boris Johnson that breaching the 30-point-mark between Labour and the Conservatives in the polls would be a significant psychological moment for Tory MPs. Imagine if they slip behind Reform.

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These polling numbers mean that the Channel crossings will (probably) soon become Labour’s problem. This could prove tricky for Keir Starmer. Tory leadership hopefuls are poised to brandish their immigration-cutting credentials in the forthcoming contest by, for instance, promising to leave the European Convention on Human Rights. If the Tory party went down the anti-immigration route, not least to recover some votes from Reform, it could pose serious problems for a managerial Starmer government that scraps the Rwanda scheme in office. The boats won’t stop simply because No 10 has a new occupant. In the same way that Labour can’t talk about tax rises in opposition, the Conservatives might find attacking Labour over immigration easier when out of power. On that reading, Labour might pause before wishing the government’s latest plans to “stop the boats” fail.

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

[See also: PMQs review: Starmer lays a Truss trap for Sunak]

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