A debate has been taking place within the Government for the past month or so over small boats. Should Rishi Sunak kick off his political New Year by announcing plans to stop them, rather than risk seeing his proposals fail to gain public cut-through during the pre-Christmas run-up? Or can’t he afford to wait?
It isn’t yet clear whether he is prepared, when push comes to shove, to go the full Richard Ekins (the Policy Exchange contributor wants the Government to ignore any adverse rulings from the European Court of Human Rights) or the full Nick Timothy (who wrote for the Centre for Policy Studies that Britain should leave the jurisdiction of the Court if necessary, and incorporate the European Convention rights into domestic law).
Conservative MPs are divided. Some on the left of the party are not prepared to support withdrawal from the ECHR, and pin their hopes on a deal with France to stop the boats. That the right is willing is quit is a statement of the obvious.
Perhaps it would ultimately be willing to leave Northern Ireland within the Convention (since it is written into the Belfast Agreement, which underpins the province’s political settlement ) just as it was ultimately prepared to accept the land border established by the EU agreements (into which ECHR membership is written).
But either way, the bulk of opinion within the Parliamentary Party clearly leans right – especially in provincial Midlands and northern marginal seats, a category not confined to the Red Wall constituencies won by the Conservatives in 2019. Such seats, strictly speaking, are those not previously won by the party in modern times, if ever. But whatever their previous history, Tory MPs outside London and its cultural hinterland believe that failure to stop the boats is putting their seats in peril.
My sense is that most of them aren’t spooked by Richard Tice, whose Reform party failed to gain traction in the Chester by-election. Nigel Farage is a different matter – though it’s far from clear that he intends a return to front-line politics.
At any rate, Downing Street will have pondered whether the Tory left would mobilise in the Commons against leaving the jurisdiction of the Court and, if so, what Labour would do. But at any rate, the Prime Minister has judged that he can’t afford to wait, and has decided to make an interim speech on small boats today.
It seems to be focused on Albania – since roughly two in five of the 40,000 people who have crossed the channel in small boats this year come from that country. He has struck a deal with it under which most Albanians will be unable to claim asylum in Britain, and will be returned there as soon as their claims as assessed. Those who claim that they are victims of modern slavery will have their claims heard in Albania.
The core of the Government’s argument will be that other European countries view Albania as a safe country to return people to – and that there’s no reason why Britain should take a different view.
The first question about this arrangement is how many Albanians will nonetheless be able to convince the authorities or the courts that their claim has merit, and so should not be sent back. No claimant from that country has been granted asylum by the courts this year.
However, only 50 of more than 12,000 claims from Albanian asylum seekers have been processed this year. So Suella Braverman, who has herself said that Britain has lost control of its borders, must tighten them. That means speeding up the assessment of claims – almost 150,000 of which are awaiting decision, the highest figure for two decades. One in three of those who entered Britain on small boats in the first half of this year were from Iraq and Afghanistan (or at least claimed to be).
Iran and Iraq previously provided about half of the arrivals – and the asylum application success rate from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria currently runs at 98 per cent. The Rwanda scheme has been crafted with them very much in mind.
Farage and Tice will be poised to pounce if speeding up claims turns out to be shorthand for a general amnesty, at least for claimants from these middle eastern countries. At the last, the domestic courts will do what Parliament tells them to do, and Sunak is preparing for legislation to merge the assessment systems for asylum and modern slavery claims.
The change is intended to stop those claiming under the first to switch to the second, which thus provides a loophole. If the first question about Sunak’s plans is what the domestic courts make of them, the second is how the European Court reacts – and how the Government responds to any adverse judgement. There is a limit to how long this can can be kicked down the road for, regardless of the Prime Minister’s Albanian deal and the new legislation that has been briefed.
When push comes to shove, what will matter will be whether or not the boats stop – or at least that the voters believe that the Prime Minister really wants to halt them and is sparing no effort.
Short of France allowing Britain to police its beaches, and perhaps even were that unlikely eventuality to be realised, that means reviewing our international obligations. This may play no part in Sunak’s Albanian scheme, or his announcement today, but if not he will have to meet the challenge in the New Year.