The migrant bill won’t stop the boats... it’s not meant to
The most effective moment in Yvette Cooper’s response to the Illegal Migration Bill in the Commons came when she quoted the home secretary saying that the bill meant that irregular arrivals would be detained and returned. Only she wasn’t quoting this home
secretary or this bill: it was Suella Braverman’s predecessor Priti Patel, and the previous immigration bill. Thus Cooper, the shadow home secretary, identified the central fact of yesterday’s launch: that it was Plan B, for use in the event of failure.
Plan A was that Rishi Sunak would persuade Emmanuel Macron to agree that France would accept returned migrants. The prime minister deployed the same charm, reasonableness and attention to detail that had secured the Windsor Agreement on Northern Ireland, but Macron turned out to be more resistant than Ursula von der Leyen.
A few days ago it was reported that Macron would say “Non”, and so, when Sunak meets him this weekend, he won’t ask. I don’t know what Sunak offered Macron in return for accepting rejected migrants, but whatever it was, it wasn’t enough.
That meant that Sunak had to activate Plan B, which was to press on with all the other measures that have been tried before and have failed to work. They won’t work this time, either. It has finally dawned on most politicians that the only thing that would deter people from trying to cross the Channel in small boats would be knowing that they would not be allowed to stay in the UK when they got there. That is not possible unless France agrees to take them back, because sending them anywhere else is too difficult, both logistically and legally.
So the purpose of Plan B is not to stop the boats, but to fight the election on the issue. This means that the bill has to do enough to persuade the British public that the government is trying to stop the boats, and it has to be presented with the kind of rhetoric that Labour cannot bring itself to emulate.
I suspect that, after what will have been 14 years of Tory government, many voters will decide that the Conservatives have had long enough to sort out immigration
Hence Braverman and Cooper competed with each other to condemn the shambolic state of Britain’s asylum system, while Braverman tried to sound as different as possible from Labour, testing the boundaries of decency by declaring not only that 100 million people around the world could qualify for refugee status in Britain, but that “they are coming here”.
Cooper produced a fine show of righteous anger at the failure to stop the boats, which was only slightly undermined by Braverman agreeing with her. The home secretary did that nowfamiliar trick of talking about the failures of the past 13 years as if a different party had been in power all that time. At some point, the trick is going to stop working, but Sunak and Braverman have no choice but to try to make the illusion work one more time.
Braverman also pointed out that Labour does not have an alternative policy that has any better prospect of working, as Cooper’s five-point plan is essentially the government’s policy without the more offensive anti-immigrant rhetoric – right down to point four, which stipulates a “new agreement with France and other countries on returns”.
The scene is set for an unedifying contest as the election approaches. The election is far enough away for the government’s latest policy to fail. Cooper’s response to Braverman was a pointed reminder of the fate of Patel, once the Tory members’ favourite, brought low by her inability to stop the boats. Braverman still has a following among the membership, but it won’t last long if the boats keep coming.
Hence Sunak and Braverman must hope that the legislation becomes bogged down in the House of Lords and then in the courts, so that they can claim that they are being frustrated by misguided liberal lawyers. Who knows if it will work? I suspect that, after what will have been 14 years of Tory government, many voters will decide that the Conservatives have had long enough to sort out immigration – especially eight years after the EU referendum vote, which was partly about taking back control of borders. They may think that Labour is soft on immigration, but equally they might think either that Labour couldn’t be any worse, or that it might be better at managing the NHS, which matters more.
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