We start off with a genuine problem: people – mostly young men – arriving on the Kent coast and claiming asylum. It is disorderly and uncontrolled and a responsible government should want to address it.
This issue also appears to provide a political opportunity. Given the changing nature of the Tory party’s support, a row about illegal immigration and the tough measures being taken to address it could provide a useful dividing line. Brexit might be done but illegal immigration isn’t.
In this context, the Rwanda plan was formulated. A cynic might think it was all a political wheeze – only a few hundred migrants were ever going to be sent to the country – but a more generous view is that it would act as a deterrent to those who would otherwise arrive in small boats.
The deterrent, however, would only work if the plan was implemented – and there was always a substantial legal risk that it wouldn’t be. Never mind that, was the response, that is a problem for another day and we can have a row with the lefty lawyers. Stopping small boats becomes a political priority, Rwanda is put at the heart of the strategy, expectations are raised and the right of the Tory party is pacified.
Pacified, that is, until the courts – predictably enough – conclude that the scheme is unlawful. The right then pressures the government to disapply the European Convention on Human Rights and wider international law on the treatment of refugees. But the Prime Minister is confronted by the realities of what this involves. The Northern Ireland peace process is put at risk; our allies are furious; international cooperation on dealing with refugees is imperilled; and the grown-ups in government threaten to walk.
The response is a compromise. The Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill is, on the face of it, a rather extraordinary piece of legislation telling the courts that Rwanda is a safe country even if it is not. It excludes the courts from matters that would usually be within their domain and raises the prospect of ministers defying international law. Moderate Tory MPs should, at the very least, be feeling queasy about the bill and should be following the legal debate very closely.
But for some, even this is not enough. Robert Jenrick, the immigration minister, has resigned and Suella Braverman, the former home secretary, has condemned the bill as inadequate. To them, clause four of the legislation (which protects the right of claimants to challenge deportation in particular individual circumstances) is unacceptable. The government needs clause four if it is to argue that the bill is consistent with international law but to Jenrick and others it creates an unacceptable risk that the courts will intervene.
There are two ironies here. The first is that supporters of the Rwanda scheme argue that Rwanda should be trusted because it has agreed a treaty under international law. At the same time, they insist on the right of the UK to break its treaty obligations under international law. Second, Rwanda is only willing to enter into these arrangements if the UK agrees to comply with international law.
That a country with a far from impeccable record on human rights (as the Supreme Court pointed out) is proving to be a restraining influence on the UK should be some kind of clue that something has gone awry in our policy-making. But, more to the point, if Jenrick and Braverman had their way and the bill disapplied every aspect of international law (including the European Convention on Human Rights), we now know that Rwanda would collapse the deal. Rather than ensuring that flights would depart to the country before the general election, the “full-fat” approach would guarantee that the whole scheme would be abandoned. It almost makes one think that the objective all along was not to implement the Rwanda scheme but to leave the ECHR.
And so the Tory party goes to war. The sovereignty purists, struggling to motivate the hard-right elements of the electorate, pursue an impractical and self-defeating policy. The Prime Minister struggles to keep them on board, granting concessions that make him look weak but failing to satisfy them. Voters see chaos and some warm to the simplistic certainties of parties to the Conservatives’ right. Nothing very much gets achieved and no one is satisfied.
Rishi Sunak gets blamed, and he has certainly mishandled the whole affair. But such is the unreasonableness of the Conservative right – its refusal to face up to the real choices available – that one wonders whether this is a party capable of being led.
[See also: The hypocrisy of Rishi’s right]