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Rishi Sunak’s Attempts to ‘Vice-Signal’ His Way to Victory are Starting to Backfire

The Rwanda scheme is the perfect example of the politics of ‘vice signalling’. So why isn’t it working?

Rishi Sunak. Photo: Associated Press / Alamy

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Some commentators have questioned why Rishi Sunak’s Government is focusing so much political energy on a scheme which, even in the unlikely event it ever gets off the ground, would only accommodate a tiny proportion of asylum seekers arriving in the UK.

For context, independent assessments suggest the Rwanda scheme would only be able to accommodate a maximum of a few hundred arrivals each year, compared to the around 175,000 people currently on the UK’s asylum backlog. 

Or to put that another way, this is a scheme which, if absolutely everything goes right, will deal with just 0.2% of those currently seeking refuge in the UK. It is an irrelevance, albeit a very expensive one.

So why do it?

The answer is that it is the perfect example of the politics of ‘vice-signalling’. 

For vice-signallers, the key motivation is to signal a particular negative political intention, even when the reality of your own actions is the complete opposite. For the Conservative Party this involves signalling their intentions to be as hostile as possible to migrants and refugees, while at the same time presiding over record levels of migration to the UK.

So as immigration numbers hit new highs, so too does the Conservative Party’s attempts to appear as hostile as possible to those who come here. Whether it’s painting over children’s murals in asylum centres, or briefing plans to put wave machines in the English Channel, the strategy involves signalling the greatest amount or vice for the minimum amount of effort.

The Rwanda scheme is the logical extension of this strategy and why the Prime Minister is so keen to be seen as attempting to get it through, even as it becomes clear that he has little hope of ever doing so.

Indeed in some ways, the Government may even believe that it would be better for the scheme to be blocked than for it to actually ever be implemented. After all, if the key motivation is to signal your own vice, rather than actually to do something meaningful, then what better way to achieve that than for your tokenistic plans to be blocked by a coalition of “lefty lawyers” and the Labour Party. The politics of vice-signalling can only work when its proponents are able to drive a wedge between their own vice and others’ virtue.

Of course this is not an argument for the Government’s opponents to allow the Rwanda scheme to go through. The Government’s plans would not only be a clear breach of international law, but also of the UK’s long-standing responsibilities to offer refuge to some of the most vulnerable people on the planet. It is both legally and morally wrong and should be strongly opposed.

However, it is important to understand what the real motivations are here.

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The Politics of Vice-Signalling

Once you identify the politics of vice-signalling, then you can see it everywhere. During the debate on the Government’s Bill to declare Rwanda a safe country, on Tuesday, the Conservative MP Nick Fletcher delivered a particularly extreme speech in which he suggested that parts of his Don Valley constituency had become a “ghetto” due to migration.

Fletcher told MPs that “the reason the [NHS] waiting lists are so long is that people do not speak English in these places any more”, adding that “this is what is happening. Members can shout me down. They can say what they want — I really do not care — but this is what is happening.”

Of course the reality is quite different. According to official figures just 0.1% of Don Valley residents cannot speak English, with only 0.8% having lived in the UK for less than five years.

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Yet for the vice-signallers, such facts are an irrelevance. The intention is not to actually examine the country’s problems and to help solve them, but to merely signal their own bad intentions, regardless of what is actually happening in the real world.

The problem for Sunak and his party is that such attempts to vice-signal can often backfire. As he’s discovered this week, the problem with any Government setting up a vice-signalling battle is that there are always other people who are willing to raise the stakes much further than your would be able to.

The problem for the Prime Minister is that in attempting to set up a vice-signalling contest with his political opponents, Sunak has so far managed only to create one with his own backbenchers instead.

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