Sunak is setting himself up for a fall on small boats
When Rishi Sunak unveiled his five “pledges” for government at the start of the year, it was quickly pointed out that most of them had already been forecast to happen anyway. His pledge to “halve inflation” was in line with Bank of England estimates, and another to “grow the economy” was also entirely meaningless.
The one area in which he took a political risk was the fifth one: to, in three short words, “stop the boats”. It is the only one of the five pledges on which his reputation, and his future, can legitimately be seen to be at stake, not least as it will be extremely hard to deliver. “Stop the boats” can only mean one thing. No more small boats crossing from France to England, or else he will have failed.
Tomorrow, we will find out more about precisely what he has planned. There will be new legislation, which he has suggested will involve processing asylum applications from small boat arrivals extremely quickly, and an extremely fast track back out of the UK to anyone arriving in this way, either to, as he has said, “Rwanda or a safe third country”.
To mention that this is easier said than done is an understatement. He has made clear he has no intention, at least
currently, to pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the principal legal avenue through which people who have arrived on small boats challenge Home Office attempts to remove them. It is not immediately clear to see how any new legislation he implements will block legal recourse to the ECHR, if he does stop short of pulling out of it, which he almost certainly will.
The fanfare that he hopes will greet this week’s announcements has been carefully planned. In addition to the expected unveiling of the new law in parliament tomorrow, Mr Sunak is meeting with the French president, Emmanuel Macron.
He hopes he can persuade Mr Macron to do more to prevent illegal crossings from setting off from France to begin with, and to intervene to keep would-be asylum seekers within the first safe country they reach.
But he would have to introduce some very draconian legislation in order to override the current fact: that it is not illegal to seek asylum in a country of your choosing.
The safest and most effective way of stopping small boat crossings would be to listen to those who have said the same thing, over and over again, for years – and to open safe, legal routes to travel from France to the UK to seek asylum. But it is unlikely he will do so.
Of the appalling deaths that have occurred in the Channel in recent times, one of the most shocking is that of an Afghan soldier who had assisted British forces while they were on combat duty in his country. Despite that man’s assistance to this country, and the clear danger to his life once the UK abruptly withdrew from Afghanistan, there existed no legal route through which he could have sought asylum here. He was not irrational, nor misguided, to have decided the best option open to him was to board the dinghy that would cost him his life.
Draconian solutions offer no assistance on that front. The public certainly wants to see the crossings end, but the prime minister is making an even greater gamble than he realises if he imagines that people want only callous solutions to the problem.
Senior Tories have told The Independent they fear that Mr Sunak is over-promising, and that delivering on the short, simple promise to “stop the boats” will be very hard indeed. That he is setting himself up for a fall in the one area he truly cannot afford to.
He may wish to consider that the problem is more easily solved with compassion than by talking tough, which is highly unlikely to work.
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