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Win or Lose, Supreme Court Decision on Rwanda Policy Will Be Pivotal for Tories

Wednesday marks a potentially pivotal moment in the government’s fortunes when the supreme court rules whether its plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda is lawful.
Wednesday marks a potentially pivotal moment in the government’s fortunes when the supreme court rules whether its plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda is lawful.

The decision could have significant implications not just for immigration and asylum policy, but also for the future direction of Rishi Sunak’s government, and the Conservative party more widely. Here is what could follow from a government win or loss.

Government wins the case

While only the five justices of the supreme court hearing the case will know its outcome for sure before their decision is made public at 10am on Wednesday, there is speculation that the relatively rapid process – a ruling was seen as more likely in December – could signal rejection of the government’s arguments, endorsing the appeal court’s decision in June. And, paradoxical as it might sound, a loss is seen by some inside No 10 as not just likely but in some ways welcome.

If the highest court in the land gives the green light to the deportation scheme, Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman will have to enact a policy that many critics viewed as largely performative and unlikely to achieve its stated aim: to significantly reduce the number of people arriving unofficially in the UK on small boats.

Nearly 46,000 people made the Channel trip last year and, while numbers are down so far in 2023, they remain way above beyond the number that could be flown to Rwanda, even though the scheme is theoretically uncapped. While the aim is to remove enough people to disincentivise the trip, even this is questionable.

Another risk for Sunak and Suella Braverman, his – for now at least – home secretary, is that while the policy is popular with some voters in theory, images of tearful deportees, plus potential future stories of mistreatment in Rwanda or people embarking on the same journey to the UK again, might dent this.

It would be very politically damaging for the government to see one of its flagship policies obviously fail, something that could make hard right-leaning voters incline to the even more drastic migration ideas of Reform UK, while Conservatives on the other flank of the party might become tempted by the Liberal Democrats.

All this is not necessarily to say that ministers want to lose; the consequences of the policy being struck down could be even more destabilising for the Tories than a victory.

Government loses the case

The immediate political chronology of the supreme court ruling the Rwanda policy illegal is not hard to predict. Sunak, and particularly Braverman, would lament the demise of a plan they could still argue would have done the trick, without having to prove it in real life.

You could equally expect a Conservative-friendly barrage of condemnation from right-leaning media and commentators about interventionist judges, perhaps even with Lords Reed, Hodge, Lloyd-Jones, Briggs and Sales branded enemies of the people, or at least the allies of people smugglers.

After that, however, matters would become more tricky. With stopping small boat crossings being one of the self-declared five pledges, Sunak would need to find other means, not least better cooperation with the French and EU more widely – not necessarily home turf for Braverman and her immigration minister, Robert Jenrick.

One recent success for the government has been a sharp recent drop in the numbers of Albanian nationals crossing the Channel, coinciding with efforts to swiftly return many people to what the Home Office deems a safe country.

Ministers have already set out plans to add India and Georgia to the list of safe countries, and there are reports that Turkey and Egypt could also be considered – although officials have discounted the idea that Jenrick has proposed Iraq as well. Another proposal would be to make the deportation deal with Rwanda a formal treaty, lending it more legal protection.

For those on the right of the Conservative party, however, all this might be seen as tinkering, prompting renewed calls for Sunak to consider quitting the European convention on human rights (ECHR).

According to the Mail on Sunday, Braverman would want to put this at the centre of the next election, running a “Quit the ECHR” campaign along the lines of the 2019 “Get Brexit done” slogan. Other reports suggest she might resign from government to push this goal.

Such a move would be far from risk-free for Sunak, even setting aside the damage caused by a home secretary resigning. While resisting Braverman’s reported plan would bring anger from the right of the party, agreeing to it could split the party altogether, as the one nation centrist caucus of MPs are fiercely resistant to the notion.

As ever with the prospects for a prime minister who arrived in No 10 both unelected and 12 years into Conservative rule, the best option of all would be the one he cannot have: to not start from here.

Source: The Guardian