Labour have already killed the Rwanda deportation scheme

Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary, delivers her speech on the third day of the Labour Party conference
Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary, delivers her speech on the third day of the Labour Party conference

If any reminder were needed about the importance of stopping small boats of migrants crossing the English Channel, a grim one was delivered this morning with the news that at least five migrants, including a child, died while attempting the journey.

The question is whether the Government’s plan to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda, or the Labour Party’s alternative scheme to strengthen borders and seek “fast-track” agreements with safe third countries, will be more effective in dissuading people from seeking to enter the country illegally.

The important point to note is that neither of the main parties – at least when it comes to their rhetoric – believes that the backlog of asylum applications should be shortened by allowing more applicants to enter the country. The competition is on between the Conservatives and Labour to settle on a solution that will stop the boats and reduce the number of people arriving here without justification. That will no doubt disappoint those on the Left who believe in open borders and that anyone willing to risk their (and their families’) lives on a hazardous boat journey should automatically be welcomed as a new citizen.

Labour’s proposed solution, as described by shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, is a more robust version of the solution that front bench MPs have been gravitating towards over the last few years – a mixture of “more international co-operation”, a demand that hotel accommodation for asylum seekers be stopped (but replaced with what?) and more investment in border security and intelligence to smash the trafficking networks.

But primarily, the majority of Labour’s efforts have been deployed in opposing the Rwanda scheme. It is too expensive, says Cooper (correct) and more home secretaries than illegal migrants have been sent to Kigali in the last two years (also correct, and quite a funny observation). But – and forgive me if this is too obvious a point to make – isn’t the reason for that that the scheme couldn’t be enacted because the law enabling it didn’t, until last night, exist? And hasn’t Labour been the main obstacle to that legislation getting on the statute book?

Cooper insists that the Rwanda scheme “isn’t a serious plan for government”, but is, rather, “an extortionate electioneering press release.”

Well, perhaps. But there’s more than a whiff of electioneering in Cooper’s words too. And why not? This is an election year after all. But it seems somewhat dishonest to vote consistently against allowing ministers the legal powers to enact the Rwanda scheme, while simultaneously complaining that ministers haven’t sent anyone to Rwanda yet.

If Labour were so convinced that the scheme has no chance of working – and the aim is not to send plane loads of applicants to Kigali, but to persuade those considering the Channel crossing that the effort isn’t worth it – then a more effective and self-confident approach might have been to abstain on the legislation and give the Government enough rope to hang itself. If the planes were to take off, if all that money was spent, and still the boats kept coming, Labour would be able – and with complete justification – to crow that they were right.

The scheme would have failed. Public money would have been wasted and much human misery unnecessarily caused because arrogant ministers refused to heed the Opposition’s warnings.

Instead, we have an argument that has so far been based on hypothetical policies and impacts. We have no idea if the boats will stop or if their numbers will be significantly reduced by the Rwanda scheme because it hasn’t yet been tried, however many home secretaries have made the journey to Kigali.

What’s more, Labour have allowed themselves to fall for a Conservative trap. By repeatedly announcing their intention, once in government, to scrap the scheme, whether or not it has been successful, the Government can plausibly claim that any failure to reduce the number of attempted crossings is down to immigrants’ knowledge that the scheme will not last beyond a general election expected later this year. They might think that they can delay, via the usual legal routes, their departure for Rwanda in the secure knowledge that once Yvette Cooper takes over from James Cleverly, all prospects of removal to Africa will be immediately extinguished.

In the run-up to the 1997 general election, Michael Heseltine sought explicit reassurances from the Labour Party that it would continue to support the building of what was then called the Millennium Dome in London’s east end. Those assurances were duly given; had they not been, the scheme would have been effectively cancelled by the opposition party. We face a similar situation today. The Rwanda scheme may well fail, though no one can be 100 per cent sure either way. But even if it does, the Conservatives will, with some justification, be able to place at least some of the blame on Labour for fatally undermining the scheme’s purpose every time a shadow minister is invited to comment on it.

Polls suggest that the public is no more convinced about the likelihood of the Rwanda scheme’s success than the Labour Party is. But the opposition should be wary of assuming that their own visceral opposition will be entirely reflected back at them by voters, especially if, against all the odds, it starts to have the impact on Channel crossings for which ministers are praying.