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One of the lines that stays with me from learning Latin at school is from Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid – “Timeo Danaos et Dona Ferrentes” (“I fear the Greeks, even when they bring gifts”). This line was uttered by the Trojan priest, Laocoon, who was warning that the Trojan Horse apparently gifted to the city of Troy by the departing Greeks might actually be a trap.
In similar fashion, I can’t help feeling that ‘I can’t Trust the Conservatives, even when they obey the Law’.
A huge song and dance was made by the Government before last week’s first vote on its Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill that the legislation – just – stayed within the framework of the European Convention of Human Rights.
The Bill, if adopted, would allow government ministers to ignore temporary injunctions raised by the European Court of Human Rights to stop flights taking off at the last minute. However, it would still allow asylum seekers to launch legal appeals to argue that they should be spared deportation, if they can claim various special circumstances.
Supporters of the Government’s approach argue that the Bill goes as far as it can, without breaching international law – and that Rwanda itself would withdraw from the scheme if the UK went any further.
Conservative opponents of the bill, including 29 MPs from the right wing of the party, who abstained on the vote, argue that it does not go far enough and that the language should have explicitly ruled out the scope for any legal challenges to deportation, whether under domestic or international human rights law.
Former Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick, who resigned over his disagreement with Rishi Sunak’s migration policy, was even quoted (ironically, on Human Rights Day) as saying that the Government must put “the views of the British public above contested notions of international law” and that MPs are “not sent to Parliament to be concerned about our reputation on the gilded international circuit”.
I feel a weary sense of déjà vu. This is Brexit, on repeat.
Yet again, we have some members of the Conservative Party arguing that the UK needs to abandon another European institution – this time the European Court of Human Rights – in order to ‘take back control’ of immigration.
Yet again, they scapegoat others – on this occasion ‘lefty lawyers’ – for ‘thwarting’ the will of the people.
Yet again, they claim unique knowledge and possession of what that ‘will of the people’ actually is – though there has been no explicit vote put to the public as to whether they really do support the Rwanda scheme, even if it involves the UK derogating from some aspects of human rights law. Just as there never was any explicit indication in the EU Referendum that the British public wanted the most hardline break with Brussels, including departure from the Customs Union and Single Market.
Yet again, we have Conservative MPs misrepresenting the facts, to argue that the Rwanda scheme will brilliantly solve all of the UK’s immigration problems – despite the evidence that it will only ever be able to remove a few hundred migrants, at most, and only at vast expense; that it will do nothing to resolve the massive asylum claim backlog; and the fact that most immigrants to the UK come here legally, partly as a result of the Government’s own migration policies.
But then, Conservative MPs never acknowledge inconsistencies in their arguments, whether over Brexit or now over immigration.
Just like during the Brexit debates, Conservative MPs now are also happy to gloss over inconvenient facts regarding migration – such as that our health, care, agriculture and hospitality sectors are dependent on affordable immigrant labour, and that there are no ‘safe, legal’ routes for asylum seekers to come to the UK.
Instead, they waffle on about this being yet another issue of ‘sovereignty’. Indeed, the Rwanda Bill goes one step further than Brexit, in deliberately overriding the Supreme Court’s judgment on Rwanda, to assert that Rwanda actually is a safe country. So now, not just laws, but facts, are whatever the British Government says them to be.
Russian President Vladimir Putin or Chinese President Xi Jinping are no doubt delighted to see members of the British political establishment adopt their practices of disinformation and disdain for international law. How much easier it makes it for them to continue gulling their own citizens, and defying international conventions and treaties, when they can point to a country like the UK – previously a stalwart defender of the international rules-based order – doing the same.
And just as during Brexit, so now, we have different factions of the Conservative Party tearing themselves to shreds, while critical national and international problems go unaddressed.
The hapless Sunak is in the role of Theresa May, desperately trying to hold his party together and risking pleasing none. The same Goldilocks dilemma prevails – his immigration policy risks being too hard for the One Nation group of MPs on the moderate wing of the party, but too soft for the so-called ‘Five Families’ factions on the right wing of the party.
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Terrified of losing voters to Nigel Farage and the Reform Party, Sunak, like May, will keep trying to appease the migration hardliners, though they will never be satisfied until he has fully ruptured relations with the ECHR. Terrified of alienating traditional conservative voters in their constituencies, the centrist MPs will hold their noses and keep going along, putting party before principle, time and again.
The one advantage Sunak has over May is that it would be hard, even for this shameless party, to seek to replace him as party leader, without triggering a general election, in which – on current polling – many MPs would lose their seats.
But this is precisely why I sense a trap.
For now, Sunak can play the role of responsible statesman, doing his best to restrain the more extreme members of his party, and insisting that any British legislation should stay just on the right side of the law. If the legislation passes, and asylum seekers start being deported to Rwanda – even if it’s only a few dozen – he can make the case that his scheme works, and campaign in the general election for voters to back him, in order to allow it to continue.
But if the legislation falls, or squeaks through only to be defeated again in the courts, before any asylum seekers are deported, Sunak can switch tactics to campaign full bore in support of leaving the ECHR – on the grounds that he has exhausted all options and that his hand has been ‘forced’ into accepting the most extreme approach.
This ploy might not be enough to prevent Conservative defeat to the Labour Party, but it might be enough to save a few seats and to allow the party to keep posturing in hardline fashion on immigration, without ever having to suffer the embarrassment of the Rwanda scheme failing, or having to deal with the damaging wider consequences of leaving the ECHR, such as for the Good Friday Agreement, or our post-Brexit relationship with the EU.
Like the Trojan Horse, I believe the Rwanda bill is a set-up. ‘Get Brexit Done’ is now ‘Stop the Boats’. But, unlike the good citizens of Troy, I believe British voters will not let themselves be suckered a second time.
Never trust the Conservatives, even when they bring ‘gifts’.