Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 30 April 2024

High on their own supply


There was a point on the BBC’s Question Time last week where the Minister for Policing Chris Philip, who was until recently an immigration minister, asked whether the Congo is a different country from Rwanda. It was sufficiently embarrassing that even the Mail reported it as such, and described the audience gasping and laughing in front of the camera. This may be an extreme example, but it is increasingly difficult for most people, including much of the mainstream media, to take our current government and the Conservative party seriously.

There comes a point for any government that has been around for a long time where it gets tired, in terms of lack of new ideas, policies and people, and as a result voters and the media get bored and yearn for something different. That situation can be delayed for a few years by the government changing leader and acting as if it’s a new administration, as Johnson did, but when it becomes clear that it is either not so new or even worse than what came before public disenchantment re-emerges. In that sense this period is very similar to the Major government before the 1997 election.

But when boredom turns to laughter, when voters no longer take their political leaders seriously and ignore what they do or say, then the government is in even more serious trouble. Of course Major was made fun of by others in satire, but today the government seems to make its own satire. [1]

For example, how can you possibly take this government seriously given its policy on asylum. Much has been written, quite rightly, on how cruel this policy is, particularly the proposed flights taking refugees to Rwanda. Most of those who cross the Channel receive asylum in the UK because they come from war-torn areas or have been subject to torture and persecution, so to then bundle them against their will onto planes to a country in Africa is immensely cruel. But it is worth putting that aside to instead just focus on the absurdity of the government’s policy. The government's approach has no objective, while at the same time denying reality and even logic..

The government has always insisted that Rwanda is a safe country to send asylum seekers to. The UK’s supreme court, looking at all the evidence, decided Rwanda was not safe for refugees, and therefore the Rwanda scheme was unlawful. The government’s response was to pass legislation that ruled that Rwanda was a safe country. Does this legislation change anything about the character of the current Rwandan government? Of course not. There is a new treaty that is supposed to address the court’s concerns, but ministers don’t know if or when its contents will be implemented or observed and don’t seem to care. All that matters to the government is that they have passed legislation that Rwanda is safe. It’s like saying black is white or 2+2=5 because parliament says so, and because parliament says so no court can say otherwise.

The constitutional implications of this legislation are very serious. It sets a precedent for the government to overrule the courts on issues of fact whenever it likes. This is not what anyone ever meant by parliamentary sovereignty. But it is also absurd. It is absurd that MPs think they can change a reality that they have no control over by simply passing legislation proclaiming an alternative reality. No sane government would ever contemplate doing such a thing, yet our government just did. How can such a government, and the MPs that voted for this legislation, be taken seriously after doing something like this?

Then there is the cost of the scheme. Figures released to the National Audit Office suggest that it will cost an average of £1.8 million to deport each of the first 300 refugees to Rwanda. This figure is in one sense an exaggeration because it includes set-up costs which - if the scheme continues - will be spread over larger numbers. Ian Dunt calculates the marginal cost of each extra refugee sent to Rwanda at nearly £200,000, compared to a normal cost of processing asylum seekers of around £5,000. Of course if Labour win the election and repeal the scheme then £1.8 million per refugee will be the more accurate figure, assuming 300 people are deported before the election. These figures for costs are absurdly large, and it is hard to take any government seriously that would pursue such an expensive policy just to get rid of so few harmless but desperate people.

The response of the government is that their Rwanda scheme will have a deterrent effect, and ‘stop the boats’. But the deterrent argument fails on simple logic. If Rwanda is a safe country, why is the small chance that you will be sent there a deterrent to people who would be prepared to take the considerable risk of crossing the Channel in a small boat? It makes no sense, so how can you not laugh at a government that makes that argument?

Yet all this is small fry, in terms of numbers and costs, compared to the Illegal Migration Act of 2023, which means any adult now arriving by boat will not have their asylum claim considered at all. Instead the Home Secretary will have a duty to remove them, but to where besides Rwanda is a mystery. The Refugee Council estimates that by the end of this year over 100,000 refugees will be stranded in limbo, costing £6 billion on an annual basis.

To be fair, at some point such a policy will act as a deterrent, if those crossing the Channel get the message that they will never be able to claim asylum and instead will be locked up indefinitely. However no one in government seems to have worried about what to do with all those who arrive here in the meantime. Apart from being cruel and costly, the policy is simply unsustainable. Is the government proposing to detain those refugees for the rest of their lives? The policy is absurd, and no serious government would ever do such a thing.

This government’s policy on asylum is not something minor that somehow escaped the attention of senior politicians. Sunak has taken the lead in pushing this policy through parliament, so he and his cabinet are all implicated by the nonsense that it is. Furthermore it is not an isolated example. Equally silly and unserious is a fiscal policy of tax cuts or addition defence spending based on other spending assumptions that will never be delivered. It is not a serious government that responds to the growing number of people who are too ill to work by talking about a ‘sick note culture’, when the UK public sector spends less on incapacity than most other countries and where sickness benefit is so low that the real problem is people going to work with infections that make others ill. How can the government even think of scrapping a route into teaching in the middle of a chronic teacher shortage? And these examples are just from the past week. The list of ridiculous decisions goes on and on. [3]

Of course I understand why this stupidity happens. The government is trying to attract votes by providing headlines for the party in the media, hoping these voters don’t know enough or will not be told enough to see how crazy what the government is doing or saying is. [2] But you have to wonder, as the polls only get worse for the Conservatives, whether the Tory commentariat’s understanding of what ‘their’ voters want is seriously awry, as John Elledge suggests. Perhaps the Conservative party in the media have got high on their own supply. One of the funniest things to read every morning is the titles of comment pieces in the Telegraph. [4]

Among everyone else who does understand enough to know how daft and pointless this all is, including the non-client media, occasional laughter is just the light relief from a mixture of frustration and despair. When most people don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the stupidity of what government politicians say or do, and just desperately wishes for a government that actually wants to actually govern and improve people’s lives rather than provide headlines for its client media, it really is best to leave the stage sooner rather than later. Hanging on just confirms what most people think, that you and your cheerleaders are completely out of touch with reality and those who live in it, and despair and frustration leads to anger. But much of the Conservative party, including its leadership, has been out of touch with reality for some time, which is why we will unfortunately have to endure many more months of this nonsense

[1] Partly also because the BBC has taken what was left of political satire off the air because it was critical of the government.

[2] So a week in which Sunak gave a press conference describing his Rwanda scheme as an urgent national priority, talked about a sick note culture and made unfunded spending pledges is described as a good week for him.

[3] Postscript (01/05/24) and on 

[4] I read this from Polly Toynbee just after publishing this post, but it covers similar ground and gives chapter and verse on how most voters are on a different page from the Conservative party. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Unfortunately because of spam with embedded links (which then flag up warnings about the whole site on some browsers), I have to personally moderate all comments. As a result, your comment may not appear for some time. In addition, I cannot publish comments with links to websites because it takes too much time to check whether these sites are legitimate.