Will Tory MPs rebel and change the small boats bill?
Nothing unites the Conservative Party quite like Gary Lineker’s tweets. Tory MPs have been universal in their outrage about the Match of the Day star after he appeared to compare the government’s asylum rhetoric to Nazi Germany. But as the Linker row rumbles on, some senior Tories are asking serious questions and sharing serious doubts about the plan to detain
and deport the migrants continuing to cross the English Channel in rubber dinghies.
The vast majority of Conservative backbenchers support the aim of cracking down on small boat crossings, and most were willing to back a ban on asylum claims from small boat arrivals. “We have to try something,” as one desperate MP told me as the legislation was introduced last week. But they have had time to scrutinise the detail of home secretary Suella Braverman’s bill. And some aspects of it have been found wanting. The proposal to detain children who arrive on the beaches, in particular, is causing great unease.
One former Tory minister said the idea was “sickening”, given that it was David Cameron’s Tory-led coalition government that ended child detention in Britain to widespread acclaim. Rebels fear it will give immigration officers the power to restrain minors, as well as open up the possibility of their removal on deportation flights. “We’re risking doing something quite draconian and damaging our reputation for little gain. We shouldn’t be locking children up – it’s not right,” says Robert Buckland, the former Tory justice secretary.
Buckland and Tobias Ellwood have warned of a backbench rebellion ahead. While they are not expected to vote against the government at the second reading stage on Monday, senior Tories look set to join attempts to amend the bill at later stages in the Commons and the Lords.
There are other concerns. Theresa May has previously warned that attempts to change modern slavery laws she introduced as home secretary in 2015 must not make life any easier for traffickers. The former Tory PM could choose to make an intervention about a bill that would disqualify trafficking victims who arrive in the UK illegally from receiving support.
Buckland and others are worried about the possibility the bill will eventually lead to Britain leaving the European Convention on Human Rights – putting us in the same company as Russia – if implementation gets bogged down in the courts.
More than anything else, there is anxiety about whether the bill will actually work to cut crossings. One former minister told The Independent that Rishi Sunak had greatly “overpromised” on the issue, and will be forced to break his “stop the boats” pledge before the general election expected in 2024.
There are a whole series of practical concerns. Where do you put people if they can’t go into hotels? What about the lack of return agreements with EU countries and others? Will the government ever be able to put people on flights to Rwanda? There is also some basic nimbyism to overcome. Tory MP Sir Edward Leigh does not like the idea that RAF Scampton – home of the beloved Dambusters squadron – could be acquired by the Home Office for detention facilities.
The proposal to detain children who arrive on the beaches, in particular, is causing great unease
Sunak has taken a high-risk strategy by pushing so hard on his pledge to “stop the boats”, emblazoning it across lecterns and social media. Few Tories want to be seen to stand in his way and be lumped in with the “lefty lawyers” (as he called Keir Starmer last week).
While there will be attempts to amend the bill and raise concerns, the prime minister is likely to succeed in getting the legislation passed within months. But will it have a major impact on the authorised traffic in the Channel? Even Tory MPs have their doubts about that.
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