If immigration is really going to be one of the dividing lines at the next general election, then Rishi Sunak will have a hard time. The list of his migration troubles keeps getting longer, and this week has expanded to include around 20 of his own MPs trying to push for even more intransigent migration rules.
Enter the New Conservatives. They’re young, most of them from the 2017 and 2019 intake, many of them from the “Red Wall”, and possibly all of them completely irrelevant after the next election. By the time we exit the polls, many of these individuals will have likely lost their seats. Perhaps that’s what prompted them to act: when you have nothing to lose, you become braver.
On one hand, this means their policy proposals will probably not be that influential. Rishi Sunak has already made clear he’s not listening. The Treasury has done the same. But this group represents a new stream within the party, one that’s much closer ideologically to Suella Braverman than Rishi Sunak. And as we see over and over again, this tendency of tilting to the right of the right when it comes to migration is unlikely to go away in Britain.
The New Conservatives are led by Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates. The first has clearly stated he “doesn’t agree” with people who feel denying asylum to people who get to the UK from war zones is “inherently immoral”. Cates, on her part, has been vocal about the need to cut numbers not only on asylum seekers, but also on foreign students, social workers and whatnot.
The group, who met for the first time in public on Monday, was at pains to clarify they’re not trying to cause a headache for the prime minister. They didn’t want to be called rebels or to be associated with a rebel cause. They simply wanted to get net immigration down to below the 2019 number of 226,000, they said.
But by calling for an end to the workers’ visa for overseas care home staff and for the permit for foreign students to stay here for two years after their degrees, they were clearly going quite hard against the Treasury line of allowing foreign workers to keep the economy going.
On foreign students, Sunak had already pleased Braverman with the clampdown on international students bringing family members in the UK with them – the so-called dependent visa. He must have felt that was enough.
But Rishi’s problems with migration come from various directions; if one side pushes him to clamp down even harder, another one is trying to boycott his plans, in particular the Rwanda scheme.
On Monday the Illegal Migration Bill suffered 11 defeats in the Lords. Last week, the Supreme Court ruled the Rwanda plan unlawful on the basis that the African country is not safe for asylum seekers. The Lords have been pushing hard against the Bill, which would effectively make everyone who arrives in the UK through irregular means an illegal migrant, stripped of their right to claim asylum.
The second chamber is trying to push on details like provisions for unaccompanied children and pregnant women, and seems unlikely to give up until it reaches some results.
In the meantime, Channel crossings have reached a record high in June. The total number of crossings this year has been more than 11,000.
The government is looking at every possible card on the table, including increasing legal aid fees for deportation cases by 15 per cent, in a bid to attract more lawyers to these cases and make some progress on the backlog of asylum requests.
Sunak knows the clock is ticking – and that the nation will judge him for what he’s able to prove. But a government still stuck in the “hostile environment” mentality introduced by Theresa May, incapable of grasping the long-term causes of migration, will only ever propose hard-line short-term policies. Which will only ever fail to produce an asylum system that is fair and workable.