What are the Tories trying to achieve by offshoring asylum seekers? | Immigration and asylum

When Boris Johnson’s position was at its most precarious two months ago, he had to convince Conservative MPs sticking by his side was worth it.

A plan was devised – dubbed “Operation Red Meat” – to give those losing faith in his administration some belief that there was a higher purpose than just defending their leader through scandal after scandal.

The prime minister knew he needed to shore up support, prove himself a proper conservative and enact more of the policies that saw him clinch an 80-seat majority at the last election.

A major theme of the Tories’ campaign in 2019 was Brexit – and in the years since, Johnson has been mindful that the message about “taking back control of our borders” was particularly potent for some.

Senior advisers have been keen to ensure the voters who swung from Labor to the Conservatives – often via Ukip and the Brexit party – end up sticking with Johnson at the next election.

As such, it was with much fanfare that Johnson wanted to announce a tough new immigration policy designed at deterring people from making the perilous journey across the Channel from France via “irregular” routes.

But while it came as welcome news to many Tory MPs, there are still concerns about the detail: the cost and the choice of Rwanda as the country where some asylum seekers will be sent.

‘Why Rwanda?’: government immigration policy fiercely condemned – video report

Just last month, Conservative peer Lord Kirkhope warned that “the costs of offshoring would be exorbitant”, citing “conservative estimates” of about £2m a person a year. So far, just £120m has been committed by the UK government to fund the scheme.

Despite repeated promises from home secretary Priti Patel to bring the numbers of arrivals down, they remain at their highest on record: 4,600 people have arrived on small boats on the Kent coast this year, with about 600 in a single day earlier this week – and “hundreds” more on Thursday.

The failure to get the numbers down came up in one-to-ones Johnson held with wobbling MPs when he was in his famed “listening mode” at the end of January.

His ear was bent repeatedly about the issue, not only by people who thought the government should take stronger action to end the arrival of migrants on small boats, but also those who believed it was a helpful subject to be dominating the political agenda.

The Conservatives have risked being outflanked on traditional turf, such as law and order, but know that the subject of border controls allows them to more easily exploit the old divisions of the Brexit years – and try to paint Labor as soft on immigration.

While one Conservative MP, Andrew Mitchell, has expressed concern about the plan, many more in the party were celebrating that they could finally appear to be tackling irregular migration.

“We’ve been waiting ages for action like this,” a “red wall” Tory MP supportive of the policy admitted.

Government insiders said they had been hoping to announce it months ago, to try moving attention away from the original Partygate scandal.

And Johnson was said to have pushed hard for it to be announced before the local elections, when many Conservatives worry they will be thumped over the fines and ongoing police probe into law-breaking parties in Downing Street.

Rwanda’s human rights record has also prompted concern – given the UK does take in refugees who say they are fleeing the threat of persecution in the very same country.

Finally, there is the issue of whether the tough talk will translate into a dramatic reduction in the number of people crossing the Channel, or simply draw attention to an issue the government has so far appeared unable to solve.

The government’s own refugee minister, Richard Harrington, hinted at this last week, admitting: “I’m having difficulty enough getting them from Ukraine to our country, there’s no possibility of sending them to Rwanda.”

Some Tory insiders fear this is just another sticking plaster solution – and that over-promising and under-delivering will be more damaging to the party in the longer term.

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