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Failing to get a flight to Rwanda would be hugely damaging for Sunak


4 min read

“Why can’t the government just close the border – after all, it has an 80-seat majority?” This is the question many frustrated voters are (justifiably) asking as ministers gear up for another parliamentary battle to stop the boats.

But that’s exactly what the Prime Minister is seeking to achieve; wielding his majority to declare Rwanda a safe country for legal purposes. The Safety of Rwanda Bill will override the Supreme Court’s finding that Rwanda’s own asylum system is potentially unsafe under the “non-refoulement” principle.

Parliamentary sovereignty notwithstanding, the Prime Minister still faces several practical hurdles. First, he must legislate in a way that can actually achieve a majority in Parliament, keeping both wings of his party on board. Secondly, Britain must operate in accordance with international legal obligations to which it is a signatory.

If a showdown is what some MPs want, then better to let Strasbourg start it

With incredibly tricky political waters to be navigated and the potential for a showdown with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) a distinct possibility, why is Rishi Sunak spending so much of his political capital and premiership on making the Rwanda scheme work? 

There is a genuine crisis to be resolved. Illegal migration to the UK was in excess of 50,000 in the year to June 2023, representing an unsustainable flow of unauthorised entry into the country and a clear violation of the rule of law. Britain isn’t alone: Austria and Germany are considering plans to process asylum seekers abroad. Faced with unprecedented illegal border crossings, Israel has struck migration partnerships, and Denmark is unabashed about its goal of having zero illegal entries. Upholding the rule of law is a fundamental responsibility of governments, and enforcing the border is a vital aspect of that duty.

According to YouGov, immigration and asylum is one of the top three political issues for voters. Polling shows a clear majority of voters support the plan, including 70 per cent of 2019 Conservative voters. Having made stopping the boats one of his key pledges last year, failing to solve the problem would seriously damage the Prime Minister’s credibility.

Given the international legal constraints and the domestic political landscape, the Rwanda plan is Rishi Sunak’s best shot at solving the illegal migrant crisis. Creating so-called safe and legal routes through processing centres abroad, beyond the existing humanitarian pathways Britain already offers, would simply entrench the incentive to come to the UK, with even higher numbers of applications to process.

On the other hand, going further than the provisions of the current bill could risk scuppering the policy. Proposed amendments to rule out appeals for individual circumstances or suspensive remedies would simply declare Britain to be openly in breach of Strasbourg case law, resulting in a final judgment by the court that Britain has violated its obligations under the Convention.

If the proposed toughening measures take the government into open conflict with the ECHR, it would lose Sunak the support of the One Nation Group. The right may want such a battle, but with the present composition of Parliament, it’s not one Sunak will win – Labour will not vote with the Tory right.

The bill sails as close to the wind as it can without sparking such a confrontation. If a showdown is what some MPs want, then better to let Strasbourg start it: if the judges can’t tolerate the bill even in its present form, the Prime Minister will have the moral high ground, having done everything in his power to stop the boats while placating the ECHR. If there is to be a fight, let them start it.

Such a strategy would allow Sunak to show voters and his party that he has done everything he can with the current parliamentary arithmetic while Britain remains subject to Strasbourg law. If he simply cannot control the border within those limitations, he will be well-placed to say so in the upcoming general election campaign. 


Gavin Rice, former special adviser, now director of the Future of Conservatism project at Onward

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