Rishi Sunak’s Big Political Gamble Ahead Of Election

Declaring that “enough is enough” and that the system is “not fair,” British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak last week unveiled a five-point plan in the House of Commons to tackle illegal immigration. This plan involves setting up a new permanent unified small boats operational command, enhancing the capacity of immigration officers to focus on enforcement, slashing costs by ceasing to use hotels for asylum seekers, increasing the number of asylum caseworkers, and a new pact with Albania to expedite cases from the nation. Along with a raft of measures with France to jointly address illegal boat crossings across the English Channel, this is by far the most ambitious plan by any British government in recent memory to address illegal immigrations. What makes this even more interesting and significant is that those behind this overhaul are Sunak and his Home Secretary Suella Braverman – both immigrants.

Last year, 45,700 people used small boats to travel to the UK from France – a record – putting political pressure on the Sunak government to come up with a policy response to a problem few have good answers to. Facing a precipitous decline in the popularity of the Conservatives, Sunak also views this as a political priority, given that the issue resonates well with the rank and file of the Tories. 

A new bill aimed at removing people who arrive in the UK illegally “within weeks” and banning them for life from claiming asylum is generating headlines around the world. The UNHCR has expressed concern, suggesting this is “effectively closing off access to asylum in the UK for people arriving irregularly” and “is a clear breach of the Refugee Convention.” The opposition Labour Party has described the Bill as a “con”; Labour leader Keir Starmer argued that while “the problem has got to be dealt with, the crossings over the Channel…this isn’t a workable plan”.

Yet, against a fusillade of criticism, Sunak remains defiant, declaring he’s “up for the fight” and that “it is this country (the UK) -and your government-who should decide who comes here, not criminal gangs”. He knows that with this policy he is setting the narrative for next year’s general elections and forcing the Labour Party, so far leading in opinion polls, to fight the electoral battle on terms set by the Conservatives.

Economically too, this is an attractive option for the Tories. At a time when the British economy is still struggling, there will be considerable support among the people for a hard line against immigrants, especially low-skilled workers seen to take jobs away from native Britons. Sunak has made it clear that he wants to attract highly skilled and talented migrants, something that other developed countries have also been pursuing, though perhaps more subtly. 

A big reason for Brexit in the first place was the disaffection in the UK about immigrants from EU countries seemingly taking jobs away from local workers. Sunak, a Brexiteer by instinct, is basically taking that policy to its logical conclusion with his new immigration agenda.

The proposed law will not face too many bumps in the House of Commons, where the Conservatives enjoy a large majority. Despite the Labour Party’s opposition – mostly centred around the unworkability of the announced measures and not on the fundamental idea behind it – the Sunak government will not face any serious problems in the House. But there might be challenges and amendments in the House of Lords. Then the courts may intervene, especially as the Home Secretary has been unable to guarantee in parliament that the plan is compatible the European Convention on Human Rights. Suella Braverman has even admitted it has “more than a 50% chance” of being found unlawful. Sunak has suggested that he is also considering withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to facilitate his immigration policy.

The consequences of this immigration debate are playing out much beyond the political space. Even the BBC is now under pressure after Gary Lineker, the broadcaster’s highest-paid presenter, was suspended over his criticism of Britain’s immigration policy last week. Mr Lineker called it a “cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s”. 

Several presenters walked out in his support and the BBC had to put out an apology. Sunak refused to step into the controversy, though he underlined that it was important to maintain perspective, given the seriousness of the problem, with 45,000 people risking their lives crossing the Channel illegally last year.

The crisis at the BBC merely underscores the passions that the new immigration policy is generating and how Sunak is hoping that his tough stance will serve him well politically by rallying the Tories around in his support. 

At the start of 2023 he had declared tackling small boats as one of his priorities – he is now delivering on that promise. Politically, this puts Sunak in a relatively stronger position vis-à-vis Labour, but it is not clear if his immigration policy will actually stop small boats from crossing the Channel. Nevertheless, Sunak has decided on a huge political gamble, one that he hopes will pay during elections.

Harsh V. Pant is a Professor of International Relations with King’s India Institute. He is Director, Studies and Head of the Strategic Studies Programme at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is also Director (Honorary) of Delhi School of Transnational Affairs at Delhi University.

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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