The Illegal Migration Bill is having a distorting effect on the Tory party. It has put Theresa May and Iain Duncan Smith together on the side of liberal opinion – and Ken Clarke on the side of the Prime Minister.
This week, May and Duncan Smith sought to stop the government from overturning a Lords amendment which would prevent the deportation of those claiming to be victims of people-trafficking.
Rishi Sunak thinks that loopholes in the law have been exploited by people-traffickers. May and Duncan Smith disagree. It fell to Clarke, a fierce critic of the government since Brexit, to challenge the plan’s opponents to come up with a better way of addressing the illegal migration problem.
Clarke has a good point. Sunak’s pledge to ‘stop the boats’ is based on reasonable logic. The human trafficking industry charges between £2,000 and £15,000 for passage to Britain. The traffickers’ business model is based on the currently safe assumption that once migrants arrive onshore, there is little realistic prospect of their deportation. The government believes that high-profile deportations to Rwanda would shake this confidence and torpedo the model. Critics say it is inhumane. But is it not crueller to incentivise a criminal industry that exploits vulnerable people and often drowns them in the sea?
Any Tory hopes of a political recovery rest on Sunak’s ability to ‘stop the boats’, one of the five pledges he made in January. A sceptical country may wonder whether, after the debacle of last year, the Tories are still capable of accomplishing anything. Are they calm, hardworking and competent – the image Sunak seeks to project? Or are they a feuding rabble, prone to ganging up on each other and staging hissy-fit resignations over not getting into the House of Lords?
As former party leaders, May and Duncan Smith know how feuding fatally weakens the authority of a prime minister and a party.