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Why it’s too late for the government to win on immigration

Even if flights take off to Rwanda, the public has already stopped listening.

By Freddie Hayward

Few voters trust the government on immigration. The right sees the large numbers of migrants entering the UK each year as proof that the Tories’ promise to cut immigration was a lie. The left reviles the government’s uncompassionate approach. At the same time, people are more concerned about the cost-of-living crisis and unresponsive public services. This is why the government’s strategy to expend so much political capital on the scheme to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda was, politically, ill-advised.

Nonetheless, the government is poised to spend the summer cheering each departing flight. A marker, of sorts, was reached yesterday: the first asylum seeker went to Rwanda. The catch is that they travelled voluntarily after being paid £3,000. This won’t work for most asylum seekers because few want to go to Rwanda. Hence the planned coercion. That £3,000 figure probably looks expensive to voters, too. And yet, it is better than nothing in the government’s fight to regain a modicum of credibility on this issue.

There’s tepidly positive news on the legal migration front as well. The Times reports this morning that numbers are falling after the government made it harder for care workers and foreign students to bring their dependents. Is the government on course to cut net immigration to around 100k? No, of course not. And the public has stopped listening, anyway. But some Tory MPs might now pause before knifing their boss. At least until the local election results start to come in on Friday.

The Rwanda scheme’s success is a distant prospect. But if it did start to work, as I’ve written in Morning Call before, then Keir Starmer would be forced to choose between scrapping a scheme that speaks to some voters’ genuine concerns, or backtracking on his promise to drop a Tory policy that he and his team have blasted as morally bankrupt and unworkable. You shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the latter is an option.

As Andrew reports in his piece yesterday on what Labour would do with immigration: “Some [senior Labour figures] go so far as to speculate that Labour might have to retain the Rwanda scheme until a returns policy with the EU has been agreed and signed. ‘We can’t just come in, tear it up, and have nothing to put in its place,’ one senior adviser told me.”

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The boats will not stop because Keir Starmer enters No 10. Voters will not stop caring, either. A Tory party in the throes of a brutal civil war will relish attacking Labour over immigration. As will sections of the press. In that context, Starmer might be forced to accommodate the Rwanda scheme – or at least a comparable replacement.

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

[See also: Will anyone in the SNP dare challenge John Swinney?]

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