Suella Braverman shaking hands with Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda Suella Braverman shaking hands with Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda. Source: UK Home Office - Flickr / cropped form original / shared under license CC BY 2.0

Tory infighting over their horrific Rwanda policy is an attempt to distract from the economic misery they’ve inflicted on society, argues the Secret Lecturer

This last week has seen the Conservative Party playing out its own drama yet again on the public stage, with the fate of some of the world’s most oppressed, persecuted and frightened people as their political football. The Rwanda Bill is focussed on creating imaginary enemies to distract from the Conservatives overseeing the largest fall in living standards on record and it is about the battle for the future of the Conservative party. 

If you can’t win the argument, change the facts

The Bill is one of the most astonishing pieces of legislation that the UK has ever seen. It is a reaction to the Supreme Court decision in November that people sent to Rwanda would be at real risk of having their human rights violated by their possible removal to countries where they might be persecuted (refoulement). This decision was based on evidence of past behaviours by the state of Rwanda, including major issues in its asylum and judicial system, most clearly illustrated in the evidence given to the Court by the UN High Commission for Refugees.

The Bill gets round this not by changing the law but by changing the facts. It states that the Courts should ‘conclusively treat the Republic of Rwanda as a safe country.’ In contravention of the facts, the Courts and the UK are now supposed to believe that Rwanda is safe because parliament is sovereign, and parliament says so. 

The Bill then gets round to the issue of international law. On the front of the Bill, the Home Secretary states clearly that he is not satisfied that the Bill will withstand a legal challenge over whether it is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. It also puts in provisions that state that international provisions like the Refugee Convention, the Trafficking Convention and the Human Rights Convention shall have no effect. These are the very minimum standards the UK should uphold, and of course, the Conservative Party has no qualms about vociferously arguing that other states should uphold international law. Even more farcical still, whilst the UK will be not upholding international law, the Conservatives are arguing that Rwanda is safe as it will uphold international law on the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. 

A Tory war of all against all

In response to the Bill, the so-called moderates, the One Nation Conservatives, have argued that the Bill is sub-GCSE standard and dangerous, yet still voted for it out of fear of the right. Jenrick resigned, Braverman attacked and the self-named ‘Five Families’ of cod-mafia Tory right factions said the Bill is too weak. And it is here that we find the real purpose of the Tory infighting: Who will be the next leader, and will the party move further to the right to become defined, like far-right parties in Europe, primarily as an anti-immigration party?

Let’s face it, the actual policy itself is little more than an expensive and dangerous gimmick, that reflects the total lack of humanity and care for some of the world’s most vulnerable people. The civil service has openly stated it is unlikely to have any deterrent effect. The cost has already risen to £290m, and the money is having to be issued under the Ministerial Directive as the civil service doesn’t believe that the spending is good value for money for the taxpayer. No one seriously believes flights will take place before the next election, nor that the Rwanda plan is the be-all and end of all of Tory immigration policy. Yet Sunak is expending what little is left of his political capital with his own party to force the Bill through, whilst the right-wing factions are rubbing their hands in glee over another fight on their turf.

The Five Families want the fight; they think that they can either push Sunak to the right, getting him to withdraw from the ECHR and international laws, or, if he does not, they can paint his policies as a failure because he did not withdraw from the ECHR. Either way, when the Tories lose the next election, the Five Families think they can force the contenders to be the next Tory leader over to their hard-right ideas that mimic the Republican nativists in the USA. They may even be hallucinating of a marriage between Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage to lead them to victory in an imaginary world where immigration will be the number-one issue. Whoever wins, this Tory psychodrama is beyond the pale and the winners will be left holding the ashes of the party.

Tilting at Windmills

The UK is in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, with low growth and high-income inequality, labour market precarity, high housing costs and insufficient spending on public services. Since 2007, wages have flatlined, costing the average worker in the UK £10,700 per year in lost wage growth, while average households are now 9% worse off than average households in France, and low-income families are a startling 27% poorer. The disparities between regions are becoming increasingly glaring, with the income per person at an average of £52,500 in Kensington and Chelsea compared to £11,700 in Nottingham, despite all the wasted pools of ink over the idea of ‘Levelling Up’. The Conservatives have presided over this historic collapse, and so are looking to pin the blame on anyone but themselves. 

For people suffering the cost-of-living crisis, immigration might be an issue, but it is not the issue; falling living standards are the issue. But for home-owning, well-off people living in the leafy, green lanes where the cost of living is not an issue, then immigration might be salient. These leafy lanes are where the social conservatives can be found, those who think prison should only be about punishment not rehabilitation. There is a clear correlation between social conservatism and the belief that immigration is a key issue and needs a hardline approach. It is to these voters – the readers of the Daily Mail and Daily Express – that the Conservative party is talking, not ordinary, working people. 

In attacking immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees, the Conservative party is just tilting at windmills. So, lets dismiss this charade of the Tories claiming to speak to the fears and interests of ordinary people. While the socially conservative Tory MP for Don Valley, Nick Fletcher, claims that the problems people face in Doncaster are down to uncontrolled immigration, it is not, and it never has been. It is down to decades of deliberate policy choices by those in power that have undermined public services, stripped out secure work, weakened communities and limited housing availability.

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