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Rishi Sunak called his opponents’ bluff on Rwanda — and won

Rishi Sunak is a relieved man — for now. Credit: Getty

January 18, 2024 - 7:00am

Quick, look. That rarest of creatures has made an appearance in Westminster: political judgement. After last night’s vote in the House of Commons, in which Rishi Sunak’s emergency bill to protect the Rwanda deportation scheme passed by 320 votes to 276, it is clear the Prime Minister has won an important victory, politically at least. He can derive some satisfaction from the fact that, after much commotion, only 11 Tory MPs ended up rebelling against the bill on its third reading. And yet he should not get complacent: much tougher tests remain.

For now, though, it is a job well done. For a long time, it didn’t look as though the PM would even reach this point. In the face of open hostility from the Tory Right, particularly in December during the second reading of his emergency Rwanda bill, Sunak could have panicked. He didn’t, and now has the bill he said he wanted. The political reality is that Sunak called his opponents’ bluff. 

Before we get to the caveats, we should pause to paint the optimistic scenario for those of a Conservative persuasion. With the scheme now at least temporarily saved, the Government just might find itself capable of actually deporting someone to Rwanda before the next election. What’s more, if the scheme is started in any meaningful way, whereby a significant number of flights take off, the policy might even have some effect — marginal or otherwise — on the numbers of small boat crossings throughout this year.

For the Labour Party, such a scenario presents an obvious political problem, exacerbated by the fact that it has unequivocally opposed the policy on moral as well as practical grounds. And yet, as the polling makes clear, there is overwhelming public agreement that immigration — legal and illegal — has become too high and must be brought down. 

The reality, therefore, is that even though the number of illegal arrivals represents a tiny proportion of the overall number coming to Britain each year, the small boat crossings form the most striking visual evidence of the UK’s inability to control its border. Any policy which is seen as successfully dealing with this could become an important electoral asset. Besides, once it is a working policy it is the status quo ante for which Labour must defend a policy to get rid of it. 

Herein lies the essence of Sunak’s emerging reelection strategy: stick with the plan. In the Prime Minister’s dream scenario, by the time of this autumn’s election he will have a working Rwanda policy, rising living standards and at least one tax-cutting Budget fresh in public memory. This is the eye of the needle through which Sunak must sail the Conservative Party over the next nine months if he is to have any hope of denying Keir Starmer power.

But there is an important caveat. Suella Braverman, Robert Jenrick and the nine other troublesome Tories might be right. For years the Government has claimed the Rwanda scheme will work, only for it to be blocked by the courts at every turn. What is to say the courts won’t block it again? 

There is something in all this which is reminiscent of the Maastricht debates of 1991. Back then, John Major declared “game, set and match” and his party seemed to believe him, providing almost universal support apart from a few hardline hold-outs. And then the Danes voted against the treaty six months later and everything almost fell apart.

The reality today is that Sunak has secured a short-term victory, demonstrating sharp political judgement. But the battle is far from over.


Tom McTague is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.

TomMcTague

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Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
6 months ago

Wishful thinking.
You can both believe that immigration is too high and that the Rwanda policy is immoral (as well as illegal and unworkable and won’t make the slightest bit of difference anyway).
The facts are simple. This vast increase in immigration has happened under the Tory’s watch, including Braverman who seems to have forgotten that she was Home Secretary for part of that time, and that Brexit has done absolutely nothing to stop it.
The Rwanda policy is nothing but a gimmick that the Tories think will help them with the far right but they have made themselves a laughing stock through the comical attempts to implement it.
Labour landslide coming up and the Tories out of power for 15 years. And we’ll never have to hear of the hideous Lee Anderson again. Braverman’s leadership should be highly amusing though!

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
6 months ago

This reads v. much like the writing of Paul Mason. You’re not a confused 14-year old girl from America, you’re just Paul Mason?

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
6 months ago

You guys need to agree on who you think I am. You’re all over the place.

N Satori
N Satori
6 months ago

More verbiage sham pain but you’re still stuck with that signature yobbish tone.
You clearly have not heeded my paternal advice. You’ve let me down! You’ve let the UnHerd readership down but most of all – you’ve let yourself down! Poor show.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
6 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

Yap yap!
Who’s a good boy? You are! Yes you are!

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
6 months ago

well done for all your witty comments on unherd, Mr.Mason

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
6 months ago

far-left activists with cookie-cutter views are pretty interchangeable, and also two a penny

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
6 months ago

What would be your favoured policy from stopping the boats coming over channel? Offshore processing worked in Australia to significantly reduce those seeking to illegally enter there, so why wouldn’t Rwanda work?
Asylum only means you’re safe from the danger you face in your own country, it doesn’t mean you’ve got the right to move to whichever country you choose

j watson
j watson
6 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I can’t speak for CS BB, but I’m less worried about off-shore processing in principle. I just think in practice we’ll get fleeced and it won’t make much difference.
I was more intrigued to hear the Govt intending to appoint c150 judges to get the processing backlog down and then turnaround claims in rapid time. Now we all know they can’t magic up that number of judges quickly but why have they waited until now? I have a suspicion that simple good policy and quick processing not sufficient a wedge issue for their political calculus and that has driven policy more than good government.
I’d immediately allow asylum seekers to apply abroad at UK consulates/embassies. Damage the Trackers business model. Then virtual processing using all the additional judges once appointed.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
6 months ago
Reply to  j watson

I can’t see the problem with running both simultaneously. State that anybody entering illegally will be processed offshore and settled elsewhere, whilst agreeing a policy of resettling a set number each year taken from various refugee camps around the world

Peter B
Peter B
6 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Why not set up a processing centre in Calais staffed by the UK to screen potential arrivals ? Then we can say that anyone who hasn’t been checked there is automatically disqualified and returned to Calais. The principle of this already exists with Eurotunnel UK passport checks in France. Biometric screening of everyone so people can’t try more than once.
There are probably quite a few retired judges around. But 150 is a big ask.
I see no reason these migrants should not have to put up with the same bureaucracy we all do when we cross a border or try to emigrate.

Avro Lanc
Avro Lanc
6 months ago

By far right you mean doesn’t think raising taxes will change the climate and that women do not have todgers yes?

Peter B
Peter B
6 months ago

Many of us strongly believe that stopping illegal immigration is moral. Yes moral. And that it is immoral to encourage illegal immigration and the exploitation, abuse and crime this inevitably involves. Along with the fact that this deprives people already legally in the UK and in need of resources they need (funding for welfar not being a bottomless pit).
If you wish to support such things, there are plenty of “charities” available who do so. Governments and nation states however are not charities. And should not try to be.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
6 months ago

Jane Stevenson and Brendan Clarke-Smith voted with the Government for Third Reading of the unamended Rwanda Bill. Lee Anderson abstained, as only 18 Conservatives did, but how many of those were absent for other reasons, as David Lammy, Rachel Reeves and Jonathan Reynolds were? And while Jonathan Gullis or John Redwood may have abstained from the right, did Theresa May?

There were 11 Conservative votes against. Eleven. Half as many as voted against Maastricht a generation ago, and including one of the same people. Anderson’s three GB News colleagues of Philip Davies, Esther McVey and Jacob Rees-Mogg did not even abstain. They all voted with the Government, in McVey’s case as the Government. Such is its and her definition of Common Sense. Will Anderson be reinstated as a Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party? Or will GB News reconsider its annual payment to him of £100,000 to talk to no one else? Why should it any longer care whether he did or did not?

Although Reform UK has decided to contest the Kingswood by-election after all, it obviously does not frighten anyone in the Conservative Party. Or even beyond it, since Andrew Bridgen also voted with the Government.

j watson
j watson
6 months ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

V helpful details on who did what DL, thanks. I’d argue it’s never been about solving the problem. It’s been about creating a ‘wedge’ issue for campaigning purposes, both within and without the Tory party, and not fundamentally solving the issue.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
6 months ago

The Rwanda Bill is in exactly the same category as bringing Esther McVey into government. It is to give the impression of action to right of centre voters in lieu of actual meaningful action. Only deportations work, and the organs of state will not continuance deportations.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Where would they be deported to? And how much do you expect that to cost? And who’s paying for it?

Peter B
Peter B
6 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

1) Don’t care. Provided it means they don’t come back. Especially not if they have intentionally destroyed their documents. Not here legally. Need to go. We didn’t create their problem. We have no responsibility for it. Subsiding illegal immigration (as we do – free stuff on arrival) only encourages it.
2) As little as possible.
3) Well, how about we start by confiscating the assets of people smugglers and cracking down properly on illegal activities and tax evasion in the black economy. A lot of people are making a lot of money from illegal immigration into the UK. Almost none of it is coming back to us in taxes.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

“Global Britain” can’t just go about deporting people and not caring where they end up. That is not something that a serious state does and obviously the place where they end up is going to want to have a say in the matter. What an asinine thing to say.Well done…They’re not making as much as you think. Being a modern state costs a lot. What right do we have to tax people in other states?Not a single serious proposal but the kind of foolish rhetoric that gets approval from the unthinking people on here and in the public.

Peter B
Peter B
6 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

What’s “Global Britain” ? Does it mean anything ? Why do I care ?
OK, deportations.
Australia seems to be doing this just fine.
France is doing it to Comoros Islanders who arrive in Mayotte (part of metropolitan France).
The USA deported over 300,000 people in 2014. That’s 300,000 a year. Even when Obama was president.
Are they not “serious states” ?
I’d suggest the “serious states” are ones that enforce their laws.
Where did I say anything about taxing people abroad ? You just made that bit up. It is the law that people earning money in the UK are taxed in the UK. Call me old-fashioned, but I do believe that if we have laws, we should enforce them. For everyone.

R Wright
R Wright
6 months ago

Given legal migration is ten times worse than illegal migration, Rwanda will fail and the Tories will fall.

Bryan Dale
Bryan Dale
6 months ago

The Supreme Court will once again rule against the Rwanda plan, giving a great victory to the west, but that’s probably the plan. With an election so close, Sunak could be facing that rejection on the brink of the election. What a great boost that will be for Reform.

William Brand
William Brand
6 months ago

Rwanda Is the 1st idea I ever heard of it might work To discourage illegal immigration. If the court say no, imitate president Jackson. Tell them They have made their decree. Now let them try to enforce it. Who will the army obey: The courts or the PM. Police and army may split on the issue. I read that Parliament was supreme in England. Apparently courts are. In Texas we need to try the same idea If Biden is impeached!

William Brand
William Brand
6 months ago

Pardon the AI that handles voice typing. It can make a genius look like an idiot if one has to correct Spelling with ones finger!

Chipoko
Chipoko
6 months ago

Sunak may have won a short-term ‘victory’. But a huge number of Brits are totally hacked off with illegal migrants entering the UK with seeming impunity, many of them young men. Why? Because the UK’s response to the flood of illegal migrants is pathetic, they are treated softly after arrival and know that the law system here is fully on their side and will stop them from being deported, whether or not they destroyed their iD documents in advance.
So, Sunak will be booted out by an electorate that is wholly sick of this situation – only to be replaced by ‘Sir Keir’ (the former top civil servant who was meant to be apolitical!) who will be as bad or worse. But Sunak has lost the respect of voters (if he ever had that to any significant degree – he was not elected to the PM position, but got it by default) and has proved to be an ineffectual, two-faced politician who slithers through the political mire with ease.