The illegal migration bill, which purports to end small boat crossings and would effectively bar asylum seeking, has made its way through committee stage. The controversial policy is more likely to be challenged in international courts than to curb small boat crossings. So why is the government pursuing it?
This is arguably not a law intended to end dangerous boat crossings. It’s possibly not even intended to be implemented. It is performative politics, designed to distract from the failures of government and put the Conservatives’ opponents in the firing line ahead of the next election.
On its face, the bill signals to the electorate that the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, is tough on immigration. It shows him ostensibly fulfilling one of his five pledges to “stop the boats”. It is an attempt to hold together the Conservative voter base in the face of polling that suggests electoral defeat.
It’s been a long road for the Conservatives and Channel crossings. Former and current home secretaries have repeatedly failed to meet their own goals. The plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, on which the current bill hinges, is still in legal limbo.
And again we’ve heard suggestions of housing asylum seekers on vessels – something Sunak floated as chancellor which was “laughed off the table” – and plans to use military barracks. All of these were made with perfectly distracting timing.
But it’s a drum worth beating for the Conservatives because they are failing by the public’s measure on many other issues. Immigration has long been a winning ticket for the party. At a time where the country feels out of control, performative politics in immigration is a way to displace blame.
Public opinion on immigration is complex and nuanced. While the public has become more positive on immigration generally, they care about rules and fairness. So while hardline responses to Channel crossings receive public support, punitive policies may come with a political cost.
Read more: The government's plan to remove asylum seekers will be a logistical mess – and may not deter people from coming to the UK
This is a high stakes gamble, and one that isn’t winning the public at the moment. When it comes to voters, 73% say Sunak is doing badly with his pledge to “stop the boats”, 80% say the government is handling immigration badly, and the Conservatives are trailing behind Labour on competency on immigration.
But this bill isn’t for the public at large, it’s for the socially conservative heartlands. It’s an appeal to hold on to the “red wall” voters who are well to the left of Sunak economically but are less favourable toward immigration than the wider British public.
The bill, or rather its inevitable roadblocks, allow the Conservatives to blame others for its failures on immigration: Labour, Europe and “lefty lawyers” in an ongoing culture war, and migrants themselves.
The bill forces the opposition into a corner. Supporting an unworkable and inhumane bill is not a good look for a supposedly leftwing party, yet opposing hardline policy to tackle irregular migration also does them little favours. Immigration remains an ideological headache for Labour, opening a chasm between its trade union roots and a desire to appeal to the global business world.
The bill allows the Conservatives to paint the opposition as a “soft touch” on immigration – something the party has been dogged with since their time in office.
While support for Brexit has drifted, the Conservatives won political dividends in the 2019 election for casting Europe as a threat to national sovereignty and promising to “Get Brexit Done”. Despite his attempts to mend the wounds with Europe, Sunak has reportedly considered withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), something the home secretary, Suella Braverman, has long backed.
Braverman herself has said there is a more than a 50% chance that the bill violates the ECHR. It is inevitable that the legislation will be challenged at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Any delays to its implementation can then be blamed on the nebulous beast of Europe, once again derided as a threat to UK sovereignty.
As with the Rwanda plan, legal challenges play well for the Conservatives. Punitive and violent removals (which the public probably won’t stomach on the ground) don’t happen, and the government can maintain they are taking a hardline stance. This also pushes Europe back up the political agenda – an issue they can win on much more easily than Labour.
As the public become more concerned with daily issues like the economy and NHS crisis, the Conservatives have sought to bring social activism and identity into the spotlight. This “war on woke” is a political tactic served to deflect from failures in the economy and public policy.
Sunak has already castigated “lefty lawyers” who he says are thwarting efforts to crack down on illegal migrants, while Braverman has only just got started with claims of “an activist blob of leftwing lawyers”.
Blame games are ubiquitous in immigration politics. In debate on the current bill we even see blame games over the 1990s asylum seeker crisis.
While governments get the blame for policies which fail to curb the number of asylum seekers, immigrants can be blamed for all the nation’s ills: lack of jobs, crime, terrorism, even environmental degradation.
Whether this strategy is successful depends on whether the public deem the specific migrants as “deserving” or vulnerable. Braverman’s emphasis on male Albanian asylum seekers is an attempt to frame this humanitarian movement as illegitimate.