Britain’s asylum scheme endangers government’s survival

Rishi Sunak is attempting to legislate that Rwanda is a safe country

Rishi Sunak is attempting to legislate that Rwanda is a safe country
Michelle Thompson
Rishi Sunak is attempting to legislate that Rwanda is a safe country

Britain’s asylum scheme endangers government’s survival

No one could claim that the vexed issue of illegal immigration is a joke. Having said that, the idea that sending a few hundred of the thousands of people crossing to Britain by boat away to a third place they never intended to visit, on the basis that this will deter others from following them, displays a highly developed dark humour of a quality not witnessed since the ill-conceived plan to create a wave machine and drive their dinghies back to France.

Yet this plan for expelling asylum seekers or migrants has, essentially, been the idea preoccupying parliamentarians for months – ever since Rishi Sunak stood behind a podium with a sign proclaiming STOP THE BOATS – to the point where his government has come close to imploding altogether.

If ‘psychodrama’ were an actual subgenre of the arts, then the members of Britain’s Conservative party would surely be in line for some kind of award at the next Oscar ceremony.

They could, on recent evidence, give Barbie and Oppenheimer a run for their money, but maybe they should receive a lifetime achievement award instead, as the continent’s oldest political party and its most reliable source of political farce.

Showing no sign of losing their touch, the Tories’ variety act has entertained the nation over the past few years with a plethora of star turns.

You want prime ministers; we got prime ministers: all you can eat, in fact. You want different Great Offices of State, we got heads galore for the purpose, a veritable hydra of heads, some of which have graced the Home Office, including such stalwart crowd pleasers as Priti Patel and Suella Braverman.

The former, as too few people recollect, was the one who gave us the Rwanda Asylum Scheme, henceforth referred to as ‘the Scheme’, though sadly she was unable to bring it to fruition. She also gave us the wave machine, but the less said about that...

Her successor, the redoubtable enemy of ‘invading’ illegal migrants, also failed to consummate the Scheme. Suella Braverman may not have been trying very hard, though. Failure in matters like these is a wonderful way to stoke the grievances of one’s supporters.

Sacked UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman when she met graduate builders in Kigali, Rwanda, to construct houses that could house deported migrants from the UK.

Read more: Are British immigrants becoming vessels for racism?

As a result of this failure, however, the small boats – laden with refugees and perilously unseaworthy – continue to arrive from across the Channel, which (as we are constantly reminded) is one of the busiest shipping lanes on the planet.

The idea that sending a few hundred of the thousands of people crossing to Britain by boat away to a third place they never intended to visit, displays a highly developed dark humour.

Risks and deterrents

Even in the middle of winter, the boats keep coming. Sometimes, the people on them are rescued before they arrive. Others literally wade ashore along the coast of Kent. Others never make it.

Yet the large sums of money the passengers have to hand over to their smugglers, the overcrowding of dinghies, or even the obvious risk to their lives, fail to deter them. Given the formidable risks these people are prepared to take, one wonders what on earth could act as a deterrent.

Apparently, the answer is a landlocked country somewhere in Africa. The prospect of landing up thousands of miles from their preferred destination – now that is a deterrent!

Or it might be — if only the British courts, and the European Convention on Human Rights, and the very principle of asylum for persecuted people — didn't get in the way.

The irony (as Rishi Sunak has pointed out) is that even if the government were to say to hell with all this legal nonsense, we're going to send them there in defiance of international law – which Suella Braverman has referred to as vague and shifting anyway – the Rwandans are more than likely to terminate the agreement she signed with them.

On what grounds? They cannot afford to be accused of breaking international law.  

And so it is that the Scheme, which is so far set to cost the British taxpayer some £240mn, has yet to result in a single illegal migrant being flown to Rwanda. Even if it had succeeded, the numbers (in hundreds) are risibly small compared to the actual numbers coming across in small boats – some 25,330 this year alone.

One is bound to ask, therefore, whether the Scheme was ever practical or whether it was anything more than a political fetish, something the Tory base could get themselves worked up about since the frothing of the mouth in the right-wing press has been more regular than the white horses galloping towards the strand at Dover.

Could it be that this was never meant to work and has somehow already served its purpose, along with the strange floating 'hotel' known as Bibby Stockholm that is moored at Portland, Dorset, and houses some 506 asylum seekers?

There, too, the number of people accommodated amounts to a drop in the bureaucratic ocean.

Could it be, in fact, that the Scheme is 'bat s**t crazy'. Apologies for my coarse turn of phrase; I'm only quoting Jamer Cleverly, Foreign Secretary at the time he said it, who has since been moved sideways to make way for the newly ennobled Lord Cameron.

James Cleverly is now, for his sins, the Home Secretary, as you would instantly deduce just from the look on his face: that is definitely the grimace of a man who has supped from a poisoned chalice.

There are indications that Cleverly has radically altered his view of the matter since getting the new job, but who can say for sure? Well, because he says so. As we shall see, the mere assertion of what is the case has a tendency to haunt the Scheme and everything it touches.

So, Mr Cleverly is a true believer now, an enthusiastic convert to the deterrent power of the Scheme. There is nothing that terrifies a person prepared to risk drowning to reach the shores of Albion more than a remote chance that they might, one day, in the fullness of time, and assuming they can't bring the full force of local and international law to their aid, end up in Kigali, which is located in the Rift Valley.

In other words, they will end up right back where homo sapiens originally came from. It seems mildly counter-intuitive to say, "Try getting out of that!" about a place literally billions of us got out of.  

Given the formidable risks these people are prepared to take, one wonders what on earth could act as a deterrent. Apparently, the answer is a landlocked country somewhere in Africa.

Long and tortuous scheme...with legs

As I have illustrated, the story of this Scheme is both long and tortuous. It still has legs, nonetheless. Even now, it seems set to run and run, despite the signs that this past week was crunch time.

That's the odd thing about parliamentary politics; somehow, crunch time never actually comes, or when it does, we have been so well-prepared already that the crunch is no longer in it. Instead, we get a kind of pre-masticated mush, fit only for the more infantile among us.

It's the pundits I blame. If they would only calm down and stop anticipating the next chapters of a story. Instead, they cannot resist talking about the 'febrile' or 'torrid' atmosphere in the House of Commons, the danger to the prime minister's authority, the prospects for a complete breakdown in party discipline, the factions splitting like ravines in the earth, the obvious analogies with the last days of the Roman Empire.

This time around, the normally excitable cast of political pundits has fallen into a sort of incoherent gabble. We heard even the usually lucid Sam Coates on Sky News tripping over his own words in his haste to keep up with events.

Meanwhile, over in the lobby of Westminster, his colleague Jon Craig was doing the same.

Back in the studio, the normally calm and collected Sophie Ridge was firing scattergun questions at her panel of commentators who, when they could get a word in edgeways, were tripping over their own feet, verbally speaking, to blurt out their considered hyperboles.

Was this the end for Rishi Sunak? Would he come a cropper because there were so many different 'groupings' in the party? Would a general election be triggered, and the party be ritually disembowelled by the furious voters?  

There were so many troublemakers on the right of the party that they no longer had time to name them. Instead, someone came up with 'the five families' – a comparison, lost on most people, with the most important mafia families in New York.

One of these 'families' was the European Research Group, which, in the years after Brexit, was believed to have gone extinct, yet here it was again, having a late-career comeback. They convened what they innocently called their Star Chamber of lawyers to discuss the bill.

I say innocently since they seemed oblivious a) to the history of the Star Chamber as an unelected and unaccountable instrument of tyranny, and b) to the more vulgar connotations of the word 'star' as a malodorous yet necessary part of the human anatomy.

Before you could say insurrection, they were appearing before cameras and pundits in a different area of Westminster, pronouncing on the inadequacy of the bill and threatening to rebel against it.

Meanwhile, the New Conservatives (first elected in 2019) were also threatening to rebel. So were the Northern Research Group, and No Turning Back, and (most delicious of all) the Common Sense Group.

They all muttered darkly about how the bill would have to be strengthened, that in its present form, it would not work. In this, they echoed the words of the Minister of State for Immigration, Robert Jenrick, who had just resigned: the bill was 'doomed'.

Before you could say insurrection, Star Chamber members were appearing before cameras and pundits in a different area of Westminster, pronouncing on the inadequacy of the bill and threatening to rebel against it

Spectre of 'civil war'

And yet, on the other side, the One Nation Tories – moderates, centrists, insert sneering insult of choice – were threatening to rebel if anyone made the bill more extreme in any way. Thus far, but no further. They shall not pass. Dark mutterings were even issuing from the mouth of the usually placid Damian Green. Things were that bad.

Little wonder the pundits' heads were all a-spin with the possible consequences of this new 'civil war' in the governing party. In his vain attempt to predict the vote and its fall-out, Sam Coates had now become as unintelligible as the Delphic oracle. Jon Craig, meantime, was grinning from ear to ear and kept going on about how the ones who abstained could be known by the way they sat on the green benches and folded their arms. Others claimed they had sat on their hands. The psychodrama was palpable.   

The vote was delayed owing to an opposition amendment that did not pass. The government's climate minister was suddenly recalled from Dubai to make up the numbers. Party whips meditated sticks and carrots. Pundit after pundit discovered and repeated an unattributed axiom that the only important knowledge politicians needed was how to count.

Finally, as the pundits came close to apoplexy, and as the tellers gathered before the Speaker to announce the result, an expectant hush descended on the world.

Someone dropped a pin with a deafening thud.

Then the tellers announced the result, the government had won, there were a handful of abstentions, and the Second Reading was over. Now we would all have to wait till January.

As one paper put it, this was the nightmare after Christmas for the prime minister. He was safe – for now. It was a brief reprieve. The Roman Empire would have to decline and fall at the hands of the next wave of barbarians, not this one.

We would all have to tune in for another thrilling instalment of the crunch deferred sometime in the new year. If Sunak got through that, which would require a miracle, it would be the Lords who would have a go next.

Even if the damned thing passed that test, there would be issues as soon as the government tried to apply it. The chances of anyone flying out to Rwanda before the next election were slim indeed. Unless, of course, they were home secretaries.

As if to put the whole parliamentary hullabaloo into perspective, it was announced that an asylum seeker, domiciled on the three-storey barge called the Bibby Stockholm, had taken his own life.

The Bibby is a kind of prison hulk. Not long after its first asylum seekers arrived on board, they had to leave again after legionella bacteria were discovered in the barge's water supply.  

It was Stalin who once magisterially asserted that the death of one man was a tragedy, but the death of millions was a statistic. In modern Britain, however, statistics are seen primarily as an electoral tragedy.

The claims of yore that Conservative policies would reduce the numbers of migrants in general to the 'tens of thousands' look quaintly naïve in retrospect.

The latest annual figure for net migration to the UK was 672,000 in the year up to June, 2023. Apparently, for all their efforts, the Conservatives have simply not succeeded in making life here unattractive enough.

This despite Jenrick's insistence that characters from Disney be whitewashed in order to make the reception room for migrants and their children less welcoming. At least we finally have an answer to the question of who killed Bambi.      

Is it possible that a government, like an individual person, can suffer the ravages of senescence and begin to lose the power of speech? If the new Home Secretary is anything to go by, we can answer in the affirmative.

He was appearing on Good Morning Britain and was asked by Ed Balls, himself a former shadow minister, what would happen to the Scheme he had inherited from his predecessors if there were a coup in the country a day after the bill became law. It's worth transcribing Cleverly's detailed reply:

'If the bill is still. Sorry, of the treaty that we signed with Rwanda, in the same way that if there are treaties signed with other countries, if the treaty on which the bill. So, the bill supports the treaty, the treaty addresses the reasons the Supreme Court, er, said that they felt Rwanda at this point, er, in time, er, um, and they were talking about, er, details from eighteen months ago, the treaty addresses the specific points of the Supreme Court, the bill refers to the treaty, if the treaty is being upheld, then for the purpose of asylum, er, um, er, erm, er, processing Rwanda is treated as safe, in the same way (becomes incoherent)'.

Now, that is what I call bat s**t crazy. It could be that James Cleverly is the first example of a politician scuppered by excessive mendacity. Or else he is just channelling the collective senescence of his fellow Tories. On the face of it, he seems far too young for such flights of nonsense.

Legislating reality

The treaty of which Cleverly was struggling to speak was the one he himself had just flown to Kigali to sign. This and the new bill were designed to 'prove' that, contrary to the recent judgment of the Supreme Court in London, Rwanda was a perfectly safe country.

As Lord Garnier has observed, the point of the bill was to pass into law the assertion that something was the case. But, as he gently pointed out, you could frame a law asserting all cats were in fact dogs.

This didn't make it the case. Legislating for reality in this manner may have a future nonetheless. One thinks immediately of the moon's potential as a source of cheese. Or the likelihood that a one-party African republic which routinely imprisons its critics is a vibrant Utopia.

But in this willingness to legislate for reality, the Tories have literary precedent on their side. In Lewis Carroll's 'Alice Through the Looking Glass', the heroine encounters a well-known nursery rhyme character in the shape of an egg.

His physique bears no resemblance to Rishi Sunak's, but like our prime minister he is definitely what you might call tetchy. He gives Alice a really hard time. He also shares with James Cleverly a disturbing habit of talking nonsense, without at any point feeling the need to apologise. On the contrary, 'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty says,

'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master — that's all.'

The only excuse the government has left, is that it – and not the rebels in the party, from either side, or the press, or the public, or even downright Reality – is master. That's what passing laws is about, surely. They can mount a bloody coup in Rwanda, it can turn into a kind of hell on earth once more, but the British government has spoken: Rwanda is safe.

The same might not be said for Rishi Sunak. Still, he has surely made himself very popular with the rulers of a certain tiny African country. So far, they have received from his government a lot of free dosh and a promise that they can send some of their own citizens to the UK. Sounds like a fair swap. What's the betting Britain gets the ones they don't much like?

That and other mysteries, however, lie hidden in the future. Not even Sam Coates can say whether Sunak will survive this latest gamble.

But this much is clear: if the prime minister has indeed decided that Rwanda is the hill he wants to die on, he's spoilt for choice. The French have a picturesque nickname for that country. They call it le pays des mille collines.

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