Rwanda isn’t the new Brexit. The Tories are imploding over a pointless gimmick

Theresa May speaking at the start of the debate on the second meaningful vote on the government's Brexit deal, in the House of Commons in London on March 12, 2019
Meaningful and not-so-Meaningful Votes: "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce." Marx may have been on to something, at least as far as today's Tories are concerned - Jessica Taylor

Who would have thought that plunging back into a Brexit-style parliamentary nightmare would be like easing into a soothing, warm bath? And yet, perversely, such seems to be the case for the Tory party as it slides back into its permawar comfort zone. This time, however, the Conservatives are tearing each other to pieces not over the momentous event of Britain’s departure from the EU, but over a tokenistic bid to send a few illegal immigrants to Rwanda.

The parallels with the dramatic, painstaking, ridiculous days of Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement are striking: a PM being urged to pull their flagship bill for their own good, No 10 waiting with bated breath as backbench legal eagles pore over the legislative texts, the Wets and Spartans digging their trenches, the elaborately bonkers plots to oust the “May-/Rishibot”.

The attempt to make the Rwanda policy into “the new Brexit” is surely a sign that the Conservative Party is suffering from a severe case of pathological nostalgia. As it enters the final stages of its lifecycle, it is, like any human sufferer of the condition, deriving comfort from the act of reliving aspects of its past. With the party besieged by messy mega-crises from all sides – from a collapsing NHS to a stagnant economy, too many Tories seem to have started yearning for simpler days when politics boiled down to a single existential question.

But let’s be real: the notion that the Rwanda scheme is the issue that the fate of the Tories and the nation hinges on is downright absurd. Yes, border control is a fundamentally important matter. The popular revolt against a liberal orthodoxy committed to unfettered immigration is bringing into motion a political paradigm shift that will eventually transform not only Britain but the wider West. But ultimately, the Rwanda project was never going to be the answer to any of that.

Given that only a fraction of Channel migrants would be sent to mainland Africa’s fourth smallest country, it was hardly ever going to serve as a realistic deterrent. Even No 10 insiders admit that the aim is merely to get a few flights off the ground before election day, temporarily placating voters. But when you consider that the country is in the grips of a dangerous stagnation, the fact that the Tory party should go to war with itself over Rwanda is even more extraordinary.

The Tories could be pulling together to seize on a more straightforward opportunity: to significantly reduce legal immigration. While business lobby groups and the Treasury might grumble, this is something that No 10 can do without being struck down by the courts. Last week, the Government belatedly announced a quite radical plan to toughen visa rules, entailing a drastic increase in the minimum salary requirements for skilled workers, and clamping down on the shortage occupation list, which allows firms to pay foreign workers 20 per cent less than the going rate.

And yet as the party’s Rwandagate wars steal headlines, these breakthroughs have already become chip paper.

Some Tories will be convinced that the internal party blood spilling will be worth it. Conservative strategists might hope that with a few Rwanda flights off the ground, they can shrink Labour’s lead to 10 points, resulting in a hung Parliament on polling day. But they are in danger of forgetting that, while taking control on immigration is important to the public, it is just one of the issues voters care about. In fact, immigration consistently ranks as the third most important issue, behind the state of the NHS and prospects for the economy.

If anything, it will be the slow-motion collapse of the unaffordable NHS that decides the next election. And yet the Tories, having whipped themselves into a frenzy that Rwanda is the question that will decide their fates, do not seem to have any energy left to dwell on the fact that their entire strategy to shore up healthcare votes has imploded.

The party unapologetically abandoned any attempt at reform in favour of ploughing ever more cash into the system. This has spectacularly backfired. Despite lavishing the NHS with historic spending increases, it has failed on promises as basic as building new hospitals and recruiting more GPs. The fact that Labour, the movement that more than any other fashioned the NHS into an object of civic worship, is now assailing it as a wasteful, bureaucratic monster is as big a tell as any that no party can retain the public’s confidence by simply spraying money at it.

The Tories should be exposing the flimsiness of Labour’s reform plans, from its lazy attempt to revive New Labour’s doomed polyclinics, to its managerial obsession with new hospital league tables. They should be putting their heads together to come up with more serious solutions, whether refashioning the NHS as a hybrid state-private model, or directing money from cash-guzzling hospitals to diagnostic innovation and anti-obesity prevention.

Instead, as Sunak quietly downgrades his pledge to slash waiting lists, his party has nothing to say. Tory campaign planners seem to think that the party can distract Red Wall voters from crumbling local health services by flying a few dozen immigrants to Kigali.

Even harder to forgive is that so many Tories seem more animated by Rwanda than the broader conundrum of Britain’s economic decline. Middle income households in Britain are 20 per cent poorer than their equivalents in Germany: it is a travesty that a Conservative government should have no plan for growth beyond a few minor tax cuts.

It is an even bigger scandal that the party has given up on its post-Brexit “Global Britain” vision. There is still an opportunity to salvage the project, centred around solving Britain’s productivity puzzle.

The key to doing so is to create an environment that attracts long-term international investment in capital and skills. While persnickety and unglamorous domestic reforms, like overhauling planning, apprenticeships and business taxation are important, leveraging Brexit to reinvent Britain as a life sciences superpower and Europe’s AI hub could also play a heroic, complementary role.

Alas the Tories no longer have any interest in grappling with the great challenges that threaten both the nation and the future of conservatism. There is falling on one’s sword. Then there is being knocked out with a bottle in a drunken bar fight.

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