Patrick O’Flynn Patrick O’Flynn

Rwanda could still be Rishi’s saving grace

Rishi Sunak (Credit: Getty images)

There is an old Rowan Atkinson joke about the secret to good comedy timing in which Atkinson says the word ‘timing’ at just the wrong moment. Timing is important in politics too. As Harold Macmillan observed of Anthony Eden’s brief and unhappy premiership: ‘He was trained to win the Derby in 1938. Unfortunately, he was not let out of the starting stalls until 1955.’

Timing is just as crucial when it comes to political stances, too, as it is for personnel matters. When William Hague made his controversial ‘foreign land’ speech in 2001 or when Michael Howard asked the electorate ‘are you thinking what we’re thinking?’ about immigration in 2005, much of the nation was still under the Blairite spell. As such, these were not winning gambits.

For a scheme that has been so widely derided as a non-starter, it is already proving surprisingly potent

But increasingly it looks like the Rwanda removals policy is coming to the boil just in time for the very race for which it was bred: the 2024 general election. When the scheme was first unveiled two years ago, it was Priti Patel’s and Boris Johnson’s brainchild. The then chancellor, Rishi Sunak, was against it on cost grounds. These days it is very much ‘Rishi Sunak’s Rwanda plan’.

For a scheme that has been so widely derided as a non-starter, by Keir Starmer and Yvette Cooper on the left and by Nigel Farage and Richard Tice on the right, it is already proving surprisingly potent. For one thing, the mere anticipation of it has led to a stampede of irregular migrants over the border into the Republic of Ireland, hinting at the powerful deterrent effect it was always designed to have.

Now we learn from the New Statesman column of the very well plugged-in Andrew Marr that Starmer’s inner circle is considering watering down Labour’s opposition to the scheme. Once Rwanda is up and running then Labour may pledge to keep the policy operational until it has concluded a new deal on arrivals and returns with the European Union. ‘We can’t just come in, tear it up, and have nothing to put in its place,’ one senior Labour adviser told Marr.

For Starmer to make such a shift would cause uproar on the left but be very advantageous in respect of holding on to floating voters or at least in persuading habitual Tories to keep sitting on their hands come the general election. That he is even considering it underlines how unsettling the opposition is finding a timetable that could see flights to Rwanda taking off from July. The new Tory soundbite declaring ‘Labour wants to stop the flights, we want to stop the boats’ has clearly sent a shiver of fear down the backs of Labour strategists.

What was looking like a straightforward procession to a huge win is now afflicted by uncertainty: what if the Rwanda deterrent really does start to put off Channel-crossers? What if hordes of right-wingers for whom immigration is the number one issue give credit to Sunak for his dogged pursuit of Rwanda and head back to the Tory column?

Even the arrival in Rwanda from the UK of a lone failed refugee under a voluntary scheme has caused a flurry of excitement in the popular prints. The joke about Rwanda having played host to more British Home Secretaries than migrants still holds good, but for how much longer?

As a keen long-term observer of this issue, I continue to hold to the Robert Jenrick view: that sooner or later a new avenue for appealing against removal to Africa will prevail in either the European Court of Human Rights or in British courts and then it will be widely copied, blowing a huge hole in the policy. Also, capacity constraints may bite early, once again undermining the deterrent effect.

But perhaps neither of those things will have happened by the time of the run-up to the general election. Perhaps Sunak has timed the legislation and the policy like a veritable Lester Piggott. Going around Tattenham Corner towards the business end of the race, he may get a run out of a Tory nag that had been badly trailing, labouring even.

Will the mount, so prone to breaking down, ‘train on’, as they say in horse racing circles? That’s highly doubtful. But Rishi’s Rwanda only needs to secure a strong second place to be judged a political success. Right now it’s looking worthy of an each-way bet.