March 2. 2024. 2:17

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Stopping the ‘small boats’ is key to Sunak’s plan to avoid electoral annihilation

British prime minister Rishi Sunak believes if he can stem the surge of asylum seekers crossing the English Channel in small boats, it could unlock electoral success for the Conservative Party. French president Emmanuel Macron, whom Sunak will meet on Friday, could hold the key.

The issue of illegal migrants crossing to Britain in dinghies from France is seen as an “existential threat” to the electoral fortunes of many Conservatives, especially in the north of England, hundreds of miles from the Kent shores where most migrants land. About 45,700 arrived in small boats last year, five times the number in 2020.

The so-called Red Wall in the north is comprised of 40 seats in Labour’s traditional working class heartlands that were won by Tories under Boris Johnson in the election of 2019. If Sunak is to have any hope of preventing a massacre of his party in the next election due in less than two years, he must hold on to as many Red Wall seats as possible.

The cost-of-living crisis has made for a much tougher job for Sunak in the north, where polls show migration is also a top concern for voters. Brendan Clarke-Smith, MP for Bassetlaw in Nottinghamshire and leader of the Blue Collar Conservative caucus, said “if we don’t stop the boats, then I certainly won’t get re-elected. Neither will many of my colleagues”.

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This is why in January Sunak made a promise to “stop the boats”, one of the top five priorities upon which he has asked voters to judge his tenure at the next election. Clarke-Smith believes the issue “poses an existential threat ... [and] we are expected to deliver”.

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The first step comes on Tuesday, when the hawkish home secretary, Suella Braverman, unveils proposed legislation to curb illegal migration and tame the numbers of asylum seekers arriving on small boats. It will include a lifetime ban for those arriving via illegal routes and their immediate deportation.

This is where France and Macron come in. Sunak’s government can toughen as many laws as it likes, but if it doesn’t have anywhere to deport the migrants, its crackdown will count for nothing. A plan to send them to Rwanda is snarled in the courts.

Sunak may instead need to strike bilateral deals with European Union countries through which migrants pass on their way. France, the jumping off point for small boat crossings, is the most important. Sunak hopes the cordial relations re-established by last week’s Windsor Framework deal on Northern Ireland will help get him deals on migration. His meeting with Macron on Friday is crucial.