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Tories will lose the next election, but it's nothing to do with migrant boats

With the country in a state of domestic disarray, the British Conservative Party is betting all its cards on a meaningless and immoral 'stop the boats' campaign 
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak waves to the audience at an event in London on 24 April 2023 (AFP)

There was a time, we have been led to believe, when Britain’s Conservatives stood for something, born from a patrician sense of duty, of responsibility, of stewardship of the nation. 

These were the capitalists, the owners, the landed. These captains of industry believed themselves ordained by the divine to govern on behalf of those with the misfortune to come from the working classes, the marginalised - those without public school connections.

But even these pretences were swept aside with former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s purges of MPs who disagreed with his line on Brexit in 2019. There has always been a cabal of Tories crueller and more ruthless in their desire to preserve the unequal status quo; a white supremacist clique determined to exploit an imagined nostalgia, stoking xenophobic fears to maintain control of a narrative blaming the poor, the vulnerable, the indigent - the “Other” - for the ills plaguing society.

In recent years, the once-proud Conservative Party has found itself more and more in hock to this faction. This is not to say that the party has ever been a bastion of honour and decency, but since competence was sacrificed for loyalty, the party has become ever more extreme in its disdain for the rule of law and human dignity.

The Conservatives have overseen the country’s descent into Little Britain, an inward-looking parody of its former self - an insular backwater island in the north Atlantic of little relevance on the global stage, yet convinced of its self-importance by fantasies of its imperialist past.

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The government’s latest attack on international law is the Illegal Migration Bill, which would allow UK ministers to ignore rulings of the European Court of Human Rights in attempting to deter people from crossing the English Channel in small boats by preventing those who do so from claiming asylum, before detaining them and removing them from the country. 

Home Secretary Suella Braverman, herself a daughter of immigrants, has celebrated a plan to send asylum seekers to detention centres in Rwanda. It should be noted there are currently no legal routes into the UK for someone seeking asylum.

Gaining momentum

In a bid to appease the rabid right in the media and his own party, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has pledged to “stop the boats” - a meaningless, immoral and impossible platitude, following on a long tradition of Conservative pledges. The reasons why people choose to risk life and limb - and more than 200 have died or gone missing on this cross-Channel route since 2014 - are multi-faceted and complex, and beyond the scope of any single piece of legislation. Wars across the Middle East and north Africa, including Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya that the UK helped instigate, are a key driver.

Yet, this government has decided to pin its fortunes on this impossibility. Appearing on the right-leaning GB News, Conservative Party chairman Greg Hands was told: “You know that if you don’t stop these boats you’re probably going to lose the next general election, right?”

The Tories are seen not just as horribly cruel, but also as totally clueless and out of touch with the ordinary people of this country

And this absurdity has gathered momentum. Of course, the Conservatives are going to lose the next general election, but it’s got nothing to do with the boats. 

They will lose the election because of their chronic mismanagement of everything in this country over the past 13 years. Life has gotten significantly worse for all but the richest, all across the UK. The National Health Service is on its knees, schools are losing teachers, food bank use has exploded, families can’t pay their bills, and the post-Brexit economy is in the gutter. 

Britain is no longer a global player. Just take the reaction to the crisis in Sudan; the French are proudly evacuating nationals of 36 countries. The Brits? Just British passport holders, please, and then only after the Germans have finished using the airstrip.

So why have the Tories - and particularly Braverman, a former attorney general who is now readying herself to defy judges - persisted with this focus on demonising and criminalising people crossing the Channel? Because they can weaponise these desperate men, women and children. 

As if these people haven’t been exploited enough, the Tories are dumping them by their hundreds in communities that are already under-resourced and over-stretched. They place them in hotels, outsourcing them to companies that run the facilities badly, cheaply and for-profit, building resentment in deprived areas as struggling families believe all asylum seekers are living in luxury at their expense.

Detainees are seen wrapped in blankets inside the Manston short-term holding centre for migrants, near Ramsgate, southeastern England, on 3 November 2022 (AFP)
Detainees are seen wrapped in blankets inside the Manston short-term holding centre for migrants, near Ramsgate, southeast England, on 3 November 2022 (AFP)

Braverman has called it an “invasion”, and she has been criticised by Holocaust survivors for echoing Nazi-era terminology. If it really were an invasion, we’re talking about unarmed, mostly inflatable dinghies, which struggle to make it across this 48-kilometre stretch of water, going up against the Royal Navy, one of the most powerful fleets in the world. I quite fancy Britain’s chances.

Underfunding the processing of asylum claims has allowed the Conservatives to politicise this humanitarian crisis. Opposition MPs who decry the government’s inhumanity are described as “traitors”. Government rhetoric has empowered a resurgent far-right, who (now that they’re back on Twitter) frequently target the Royal National Lifeboat Institution - volunteers who are the bravest of the brave, heroically rescuing all those they can without checking the passports of the drowning.

Shoring up votes

It’s illegal, it’s immoral, it’s deliberately dividing our communities - and the Tories are doing all this in another desperate attempt to shore up votes in marginal constituencies. But, in truth, it’s only people already on the right who even consider this an issue. And they’re going to vote Tory anyway, despite Labour leader Keir Starmer’s attempts “to out-nasty the nasty party”.

The rest of us are reeling from a cost-of-living crisis, desperately hoping we don’t require emergency health services. Yet, not everyone is suffering: in the past decade, the average income of the richest 20 percent in the UK has increased by more than nine percent, while the income of the poorest 20 percent has remained static.

Analysis by Oxfam, the anti-poverty non-governmental organisation, based on figures from Forbes, found the richest one percent of Britons hold more wealth than the poorest 70 percent, with the five richest Brits - Michael Platt ($15.2bn), the Hinduja brothers ($15.1bn), James Ratcliffe ($13.1bn), and Christopher Hohn ($7.9bn) - hoarding more wealth between them ($51.3bn) than the life savings and assets of 20 million Britons (who have a combined wealth of $46bn).

The UK doesn't have a migrant crisis - it has a crisis of compassion
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Pay for workers has not kept up with inflation, leading to strikes among nurses, ambulance workers, doctors, passport office staff, university staff, teachers, civil servants, railway workers, barristers, bus drivers and even driving-test examiners. Local councils are going bankrupt, and services are being gutted. Costs are skyrocketing. Brexit has been an unmitigated disaster. Recession looms. You can’t trust the police. Food inflation is at its highest in 45 years, with prices rising by nearly 20 percent in the year to March.

And with every revelation of Sunak’s efforts to defend tax avoidance schemes for the wealthiest in the country - including his own family - and every tax break for energy and utility companies, the Tories are seen not just as horribly cruel, but also as totally clueless and out of touch with the ordinary people of this country. They are profiting from our despair, and seemingly laughing about it.

Everywhere you look in this country, everything is worse than it was 10 years ago. And that, not the boats crossing the Channel, is why the Conservatives will lose the next general election.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

James Brownsell was formerly managing editor of The New Arab and Europe editor at Al Jazeera English. He spent several years living and working in the occupied Palestinian territories and Qatar, and has reported from at least half a dozen other places. Follow him on Twitter: @JamesBrownsell
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