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LONDON — Walking up a narrow gangplank, a small group of asylum seekers boarded the floating barge moored off England’s south coast. It would be their home for the foreseeable future.
Their arrival Monday was being closely monitored — and amplified — at the highest levels of the U.K. government.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, on holiday in California, posted a video claiming he was “ending the farce of illegal migrants being put in hotels by the taxpayer.” His Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick enthusiastically shared the rolling news images being played out on social media.
That only 15 migrants actually spent the night onboard the Bibby Stockholm on Monday didn’t seem to matter.
Undocumented migration has become a red-hot topic for parts of the U.K. electorate, with rocketing numbers of migrants and asylum seekers attempting the dangerous crossing over the English Channel from France each year.
Britain’s shambolic processing systems have been unable to cope, and as the backlog of asylum cases grows longer more than 50,000 migrants are now housed in hotels around the country, awaiting a decision on their status.
This “luxurious hotel accommodation” has been “part of the pull” for criminals trafficking people to the U.K., Home Office minister Sarah Dines claimed in broadcast interviews Monday as she explained why the barge had been hired as an alternative. Housing people on the Bibby Stockholm sends “a forceful message that there will be proper accommodation, but not luxurious,” she added.
Yet even at its 500-strong capacity, the barge will house fewer than 1 percent of the 51,000 asylum seekers currently living in taxpayer-funded hotels around the country. Critics dismiss it as a stunt, demanding action instead to speed up asylum processing times which lag far behind those of France and Germany.
Nevertheless, Monday marked a symbolic moment for Sunak’s re-election campaign. The first Bibby Stockholm arrivals have been accompanied by rolling government announcements of other tough-sounding U.K. policies on undocumented migration, as part of an August PR blitz dubbed “Small Boats Week” by Cabinet aides.
Sunak, whose Conservatives are trailing the opposition Labour Party by a hefty 19 percentage points in opinion polls, hopes the voters he needs to keep him in No. 10 Downing Street are listening.
While tough migration policies are divisive across the British electorate as a whole, they are wildly popular among many of the crucial swing voters in Tory seats where Sunak is struggling to cling on.
The result of the next general election could be “blown wide open again” if Sunak can actually get small boats arrivals falling, said one former Conservative strategist, granted anonymity to speak candidly because of his current role. “People aren’t convinced about Labour.”
A Tory MP in the so-called Red Wall of post-industrial seats which the Conservatives are battling to hold to described small boats arrivals as “the number one issue that comes up on doorsteps” in their area.
It’s for this reason Sunak has made ‘stopping the boats’ one of his core promises — a high-risk strategy given 3,790 people arrived in 91 small boats in the first quarter of this year alone, and with numbers traditionally soaring far higher over the summer months.
“The danger is that he has spent the past six months raising the salience of the issue, and still fails to deter the crossings — further reinforcing a public mood that it’s time to give Labour a shot,” said Luke Tryl, director of the consultancy More in Common, which holds regular focus groups in key seats around the country.
The ex-Tory strategist quoted above put it more bluntly. “If they don’t manage to get control of numbers [on small boats, and stubbornly high inflation] then I think the Labour Party is going to be fine just saying: ‘These guys don’t know what the fuck they are doing. We’re going to do all the same shit, we are just going to do it properly.’”
Moving asylum seekers onto barges is just one of the raft of tough-sounding migration policies being pushed by Sunak since he took office last year, with an eye on an election in 2024.
His Illegal Migration Bill dominated the parliamentary agenda after being introduced in March, and became law just before MPs broke up for the summer recess. It paves the way for the British government to send people arriving in the U.K. without permission or a visa to the central African country of Rwanda to have their asylum claims processed.
Sunak will have to overcome significant legal challenges if he is ever to enact the policy, however. So far no flights to Rwanda have actually taken off.
Court of Appeal judges ruled in June that it was unlawful to send asylum seekers to Rwanda to have their claims processed. The U.K. government will take the case to the Supreme Court for a final ruling toward the end of this year.
Like the Bibby Stockholm barge, however, the Rwanda scheme is as much about symbolism as it is about practical solutions. Sunak and his hardline Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, want to send a message to would-be-migrants — and to British voters — that they are getting tough on this issue.
That Sunak’s top election strategist Isaac Levido is an Australian — and a protégé of former Liberal Party strategist Lynton Crosby — has not gone unnoticed.
Levido played a key role in former Australian PM Scott Morrison’s unexpected election victory over Labor in 2019.
Obvious parallels have been drawn between Sunak’s small boats policy — drawn up under Levido’s guidance — and those of successive Australian Liberal Party leaders down the years.
One of them, Tony Abbott, deployed “Stop the Boats” as his own election-winning slogan in 2013, vowing to intercept migrant boats and either return them to where they traveled from, or take those on board to overseas island detention centers.
Kim Huynh, senior lecturer in politics at the Australian National University, said that campaign had been viewed as “non-nonsense” and had “cut through” in an election that was a “desperate affair.”
Huynh however noted the political landscape in Europe could be different to the Australian picture, given its “stronger human rights regime and norms.”
But Alexander Downer, a former leader of the Liberal Party and colleague of Abbott, and former Australian High Commissioner to London, said similar policies under John Howard’s Liberal-led governments of the 1990s and early 2000s had seen the trafficking of people into Australia fall away to “negligible levels.”
“That’s why the Rwanda solution is a really good solution. If they could pack all these people off to Rwanda then within weeks, not within months, people would stop coming across the Channel in small boats,” he said.
Unsurprisingly, the opposition U.K. Labour Party disagrees.
Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper has variously branded the government’s Rwanda scheme ”unworkable,” “unethical” and “extortionately expensive.” Shadow Immigration Minister Stephen Kinnock said he was “personally deeply unhappy” at the prospect of using vessels like the Bibby Stockholm.
But in terms of offering an alternative strategy, the U.K. Labour Party is less clear.
The party has a political tightrope to walk on the issue. More in Common polling in April showed public support for the Rwanda policy, with 46 per cent backing the government’s plans, with 27 per cent opposed.
Kinnock on Monday said his party would have “no choice” but to continue housing asylum seekers on barges and ex-military bases if it forms the next government.
Anand Menon, director of the UK in a Changing Europe think tank, said that despite its deep misgivings, Labour will not allow a significant policy gap to open up with the Conservatives on the issue. After years of political chaos under Tory rule, the party wants the election to be fought on competence rather than policy differences.
Rather than than questioning if “we have a duty under international law to help these people fleeing persecution,” Labour is focusing on the Conservatives “being crap at getting rid of them and processing them,” Menon said.
Bethany Dawson contributed reporting.