Two things are true about the photo of Suella Braverman doing the rounds after her trip to Rwanda at the weekend – head thrown back, mouth wide open, cackling like the villain in a children’s cartoon as she stands in front of a site that could be used to house asylum seekers deported from the UK.
The first is that the version of the photo that went viral on social media has been edited. The original, uncropped version shows some other people standing beside Braverman (her guides around the Bwiza Riverside Estate construction site, according to the Daily Mail) smiling and laughing with her. The context shows that this is a photo of three people sharing a joke, not of the Home Secretary driving herself to spontaneous giggles at the cruelty of the government’s Rwanda policy.
The second is that it’s entirely plausible that Braverman would be caught on camera laughing at the prospect of sending asylum seekers – who have fled war zones and persecution and risked their lives crossing the Channel – to migrant camps in a country 4,000 miles away with a dodgy human rights record. It is plausible because she has publicly revealed her feelings before. A few months ago she told an audience at the Conservative Party conference that it was “my dream, my obsession” to see newspaper front pages showing planes taking off for Rwanda.
Other home secretaries might “dream” of sorting out the toxic culture in British police forces that means women and girls in the UK feel unsafe on their own streets, or of fixing Britain’s dysfunctional immigration system so we can get more of the workers our country so clearly needs, or, if migrants crossing the Channel is really the most important issue, of targeting the trafficking gangs that cause such untold misery. Not Braverman. She appears to get off on the thought of deporting desperate people.
[See also: The rise, fall and rise of Suella Braverman]
And while it might look as though Braverman has been the victim of an unscrupulous photo-crop (the kind politicians have nightmares about – the reason it has long been communications officer lore that you keep your boss away from any poster containing the word “count”), the rest of the reporting from her jaunt to Rwanda tells a similar story. The other photographs also show her beaming from ear to ear as she toured the migrant accommodation; she quipped about getting advice from the interior designer like a gushing school girl. This is not the behaviour of a woman simply expressing professional satisfaction at getting a difficult job done. This is a woman actively enjoying herself.
Which is a bit of an issue if that job involves revoking the rights of victims of modern slavery, deporting persecuted children and potentially breaking international law. And it’s not just an issue for the poor people involved, but for the Conservatives.
The Rwanda policy is unspeakably cruel. It is unlikely to work as a deterrent to those making the journey (if the risk of drowning in the Channel isn’t enough of a disincentive, it’s hard to imagine what is), and entirely ignores the real problem: the lack of legal asylum routes. As Braverman admitted herself in a select committee hearing in November, a teenage orphan fleeing their war-torn home has no safe and legal way to enter the UK to claim asylum unless they come from one of the handful of countries where the UK has a specific scheme in place, such as Ukraine and Afghanistan.
Public support for the policy (which is, shall we say, mixed) stems from the argument that it is the least bad option: that its inherent cruelty is sadly necessary to tackle the even greater cruelty of the trafficking gangs. Most voters – even Conservative ones – don’t like to think of themselves as the type of people who delight in inflicting harm on children and modern slavery victims. If they back the Rwanda scheme, it is because they have told themselves it is the only constructive solution to secure Britain’s borders and prevent people from dying in the Channel. That’s why Oliver Dowden, the Cabinet Office Secretary, stressed in interviews on Sunday that the government was being “forced” into this policy. “I don’t relish any of this and I really wish we didn’t have to do it,” he told Sky News, sombre-faced.
There was nothing sombre about Braverman’s face at the weekend. She is a liability for Rishi Sunak’s administration of “integrity” and “professionalism”, because she shatters the façade that his government is acting out of pragmatism. There is a reason why, despite a tough stance on immigration being attractive to the Tory base, her personal approval ratings are so dire. Even those who believe the Rwanda scheme is necessary must surely baulk at the obvious pleasure the Home Secretary is taking in this policy – a pleasure she does not seem to take in any other aspect of her role. No one should be filled with glee at the thought of filling detentions centres with traumatised refugees. No one should “relish” that part of their job. And if they do, if they are really able to find joy in the prospect of ruining lives, they lack the empathy to have the job at all.
[See also: Rishi Sunak can’t win his fight on the small boats bill]