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Small Boats, Big Decisions


Small Boats, Big Decisions

Even before last weekend’s Remembrance Day demonstrations of Pro-Palestine marchers brandishing anti-semitic slogans and Monday’s cabinet reshuffle, the questions were piling up for the Prime Minister, writes Sheila Lawlor, Politeia’s Founder and Research Director. Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling against the Rwanda plan, she explains, adds to the pressure to take back control, not only of our streets, but of our laws.

Last Monday Mr Sunak’s plans to take back  control were limited to the ministers in his government. In a major reshuffle, he sacked his Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, moved the foreign secretary James Cleverly sideways to the Home Office to allow the new arrival,  David, now Lord, Cameron to upstage Braverman’s departure. Not only had she made no secret of her objections to the intimidating marches of pro-Palestine marchers and those of counter-demonstrators, with their ugly displays of antisemitism and lapses into violence. But,  should the Supreme Court rule against the Rwanda plan in its imminent judgement, she was thought to support a withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights and other relevant international legislation, under which the courts could challenge the legality of the scheme. That was not on Mr Sunak’s pro-European agenda. Indeed, according to a No 10 representative, Braverman’s sacking was because she was because not a team player.

It is true that Braverman’s first commitment was to her responsibility as Home Secretary, to uphold the law, protect public order on our streets, to reassure its Jewish minority and the people of this country, that the streets are open to the public without intimidation, threats or molestation. Braverman  certainly provoked controversy and that may not have suited Mr Sunak’s managerial style of leadership.

In particular her Illegal Migration Bill, which aimed to stop the small boats arriving from France by facilitating the rapid removal illegal migrants to a safe third country especially Rwanda, where asylum claims  would be processed, passed the Commons with significant majorities, but was hated by Britain’s well-heeled elites, including many in the House of Lords who sought to obstruct the Bill until the eleventh hour.  Braverman’s career as a barrister before entering parliament equipped her to cut through the obfuscations, caveats and double-speak, used by many politicians to address the difficult problems and costs voters face.  She was prepared to insist that asylum demands (which illegal immigrants may be advised to make by their lawyers), should not hold up a removal to a safe third country such as Rwanda where claims would be heard.

But the courts were not satisfied that once in Rwanda, at least on current evidence, claimants would be processed properly or would not be subject to removal to the dangerous countries they had fled. The Divisional Court upheld the Home Office, but in the Court of Appeal a majority of two judges to one ruled against the Rwanda scheme because of the danger of refoulement, the return to their home country of asylum claimants where they might face persecution. This week the Supreme Court rejected the Home Secretary’s appeal: its magisterial judgement summarised the legal position on which the ruling was based, referring to both the UK’s own law and Britain’s international treaties, including the two post war conventions, European Convention on Human Rights, the UN Refugee Convention, with Lord Reed, in a quiet and thoughtful manner, speaking for the Court.

For Mr Sunak stopping the boats remains a priority, one of his five pre-election pledges, and thought to be a potential vote winner. Few questions are more politically charged than immigration. 1.2 million people came to the UK last year; taking account of those who left, net migration was around 606,000, adding to the pressures on housing, the NHS already stretched waiting lists, and school places. The costs are high, not merely to taxpayers, but to the villages and towns to which they are removed, themselves often small communities.

Yet, despite the assurance that he will ‘do what it takes’ to stop the boats, the Prime Minister may not wish to undermine his credentials with the  sizeable establishments of the international cosmopolitan elites and the institutional framework of the UN, the Human Rights Court and the EU, stretching from  New York to Brussels and Strasbourg. He has made it his business to restore relations with the EU and the sizeable pro-EU establishment. The Windsor Framework was the opportunity for warm words, a visit and a photocall with the Ingrid Bergman-like EU President, Ursula van den Leyen. Rejoining the European research programme, Horizon, followed. And now the UK will play host to the European Political Community, President Macron’s tool for drawing non-EU countries into the European system, with plans also for a common European foreign and defence policy.

Amid the chaos and the antisemitism on our streets, the Rwanda ruling has at a stroke opened another front on Europe. Who controls our laws? Will the government go ahead to end the binding nature of those international treaties and other agreements which supersede the laws of this country? The new Home Secretary promises a new treaty with Rwanda to overcome such difficulties, but the former Supreme Court judge, Jonathan Sumption, who is known to advocate departure from the European Convention on Human Rights, explains that this plan cannot work, because facts cannot be changed by passing a law: a new law deeming Rwanda safe would not be recognized internationally. For her part, Braverman recommends withdrawing from the Convention and other international obligations under which Britain is bound by law, along with a swift removal of asylum seekers.

Both Conventions (European and UN Refugee) started life in the very different post-war era and are totally unsuited to a world of mass travel, with a booming trade in trafficking and a sophisticated legal and institutional framework to underwrite the claims of those who seek to settle in western European states. Given the disparity of living standards, with millions on the move to Europe, European countries are concerned. In France, Germany and Italy stopping illegal migration is one of the most potent political priorities. It has driven a wedge between the voters and their governments, led to big budgetary increases and prompted 11 EU states to withdraw from Schengen’s open borders to resume checks. It now threatens a stand-off on with Brussels’ proposed ‘fix’ (due in the spring) thought to involve redistributing quotas, with fines on states which refuse. If anything, the UK is behind the curve. German and Italian governments have signalled they can no longer cope— their democratic systems are being threatened. In France, where President Macron is preoccupied with bartering over the terms of his migration plan, there are now calls to end the binds of international law.

Britain is therefore no outlier.

Ultimately it is for Parliament to make the law. Unless the law is changed, the courts must uphold the current arrangements. A new treaty with Rwanda does not change the evidence on which the case has been (or will again be) judged. Rishi Sunak will be doing the country and our European neighbours a favour if he champions a change, not only or mainly in the deal with Rwanda, but also in the law. He will show once again, that in Britain’s democracy, a Conservative Prime Minister, can and does honour the promises made to the voters.

Dr Sheila Lawlor

Dr Sheila Lawlor (Baroness Lawlor) is Politeia’s Founder and Research Director. She served as its executive director from 1995-2020, developing the constitutional, economic and social policy programme with UK and international specialists. Her background is as an academic historian of 20th century British political history, having started her working life as research fellow at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge and Churchill College, Cambridge. Her academic publications include Churchill and the Politics of War 1940-41 and for Politeia she has written on social, economic and constitutional policy. She was made a Life Peer in October 2022.

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