Whatever it takes. Those three words have been Rishi Sunak’s mantra about the Rwanda scheme, repeated regularly over the last few weeks to show his determination to get it back on track after the Supreme Court’s intervention.
The Prime Minister was adamant that his work would deliver results in the next few months. “We will clear the remaining barriers and flights will be heading off in the spring as planned,” he said.
But since then, many will wonder if ministers are trying to set them up for further disappointment.
James Cleverly raised eyebrows among Tory backbenchers by declaring soon after becoming Home Secretary that the flagship migration policy was not the “be all and end all” of the Government’s plans.
This was consistent with his initial response to the Supreme Court’s ruling, in which he downplayed Rwanda as “just one part of a vehicle of measures to stop the boats and tackle illegal immigration”.
Amid the gaudy pomp of a treaty signing ceremomy in Kigali, Mr Cleverly maintained his reserved tone today.
“We want to see this part of our wider migration plan up and running as quickly as possible,” he told reporters.
Notably, the Home Secretary declined to guarantee the first flights would take off by the spring – despite it being specifically highlighted by the Prime Minister to be part of his plan.
Such a difference in tone between ministers tends to obsess the Westminster village, but it matters.
Immigration remains one of the public’s biggest concerns and they are keen for solutions to show Brexit Britain has taken back control of its borders.
Yet most of those polled tend to feel the Rwanda scheme will not help at all, with 48 percent telling More in Common it would make no difference and a surprise 3 percent saying it would actually lead to more people coming illegally.
This immense public scepticism will only have grown in wake of the Supreme Court’s intervention.
Shortly aftewards, YouGov found that voters were keener to suggest Rwanda was put out of its misery – whether by outright scrapping the scheme or similar pursuing similar deals with other countries – than made to work.
Home Secretary signs new asylum treaty in Rwanda
Making it work is easier said than done, as experts have warned that Mr Sunak’s plan for a new treaty and domestic legislation will not stop European judges from wading in again.
In fact, they have suggested it could force the Prime Minister to decide between appeasing Strasbourg or risking the UK’s departure from the European Convention on Human Rights in order to get the job done.
As Jonathan Jones, former head of the Government legal service, wrote recently: “The Prime Minister’s language about ‘not [allowing] any foreign court, like the European Court of Human Rights, to block these flights’ suggests he would be prepared to defy any such ruling…Ultimately it could put the UK on the path to leaving (or being ejected from) the ECHR.”
Given the capital being invested in salvaging the Rwanda scheme, ministers have staked their future on gettiing flights going in the coming months.
Succeeding could make a decisive dent in the polls, showing the Tories defying the doubters like never before.
Failure will be seized upon by Nigel Farage and his Reform compatriots, who will show little mercy in punishing what they will see as a blatant broken promise.
As sensible as it can be to manage expectations, some recent attempts have panicked Tory backbenchers because they sounded instead like admissions of defeat.
Perhaps ministers fear in private the scheme is doomed to fail because they are struggling to come up with legislation that has enough teeth to protect the Rwanda scheme from Strasbourg which can get through Parliament.
Perhaps the Prime Minister’s team realise that his refusal to let foreign courts stand in the way of Rwanda again means he could have to consider something he actually never wants to do, like leave the ECHR.
In any case, the scheme can only work as a deterrent if illegal migrants are successfully sent to Rwanda, yet more Home Secretaries than asylum seekers have been flown out there so far.
The Rwanda scheme was designed as a deterrent for illegal immigration, but that can only work if flights are able to take off. That is why the Prime Minister has devoted himself to making it work.
But time is short and voters will not thank a party which promises a lot only to get stuck in Sisyphean struggles.
So if Mr Sunak is serious in his determination to make Rwanda happen, he needs to be ready to prove that “whatever it takes” isn’t just empty words.
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