There has been much discussion of Margaret Thatcher’s legacy in Parliament of late, including at last Wednesday’s PMQs.
Sir Keir Starmer has repeated Tony Blair’s famous pre-election gambit of praising Margaret Thatcher (as an olive branch to Conservative voters).
As a long-time admirer of Mrs Thatcher, I cannot but help recall one of her better-known sayings: “I say what I mean - and I mean what I say.” So, it is perhaps worth asking what might she have done to stop the wave of illegal immigration which we now face across the English Channel?
Our current Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, promised faithfully to “Stop the Boats”, which is a noble but nonetheless binary pledge (which some people did actually caution him against).
Nevertheless, he pledged not to reduce the flow of boats but to STOP them. While the flow has indeed reduced, partly due to a repatriation deal with Albania, which the PM personally helped negotiate, the boats nevertheless continue to arrive, with depressing regularity (even despite some migrants having tragically drowned mid-channel).
The Prime Minister’s Rwanda plan is now hanging by a thread. It has been challenged by the Supreme Court and the disputes over his new legislation to overcome this, the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill, have already led to him losing not just a principled Home Secretary, Suella Braverman but also an equally principled Immigration Minister,
Robert Jenrick, before the Bill has even been debated in Parliament.
Given how complex these legal arguments can become, the European Research Group, which I chair, asked our team of expert lawyers, the so-called “Star Chamber”, under the leadership of Sir Bill Cash, himself a respected constitutional lawyer, to conduct a forensic scrutiny of the Bill, to see if it contained sufficiently unambiguous legal language, to allow flights to Rwanda to actually take off.
Their report, which was published today, concludes very clearly that: “In summary, the Bill overall provides a partial and incomplete solution to the problem of legal challenges in the UK courts being used as stratagems to delay or defeat the removal of illegal migrants to Rwanda.” In other words, by still leaving open an ability for individual migrants to challenge deportation, via the ECHR, the Bill, as presently drafted, leaves us, in effect, right back at square one.
After two false starts, with The Nationality and Borders Act 2021 and the Illegal Immigration Act 2023, both of which were at least partly intended to stop the boats - but didn’t - this is our last chance, as a Party of Government, to get it right.
Otherwise, the risk is the voting public will decide it’s “three strikes and you’re out” and just bring the shutters down on us. As experienced MPs, who remember the 1997 General Election will know, once you reach that stage, it’s all over bar the shouting.
The obvious thing to do in this situation might therefore be to either withdraw the Bill - and start again - or amend the Bill, to plug the gaps expertly identified by Sir Bill and his team.
However, at the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers last Wednesday evening the PM’s “take it or leave it” attitude would appear to mitigate against that. Some might regard this approach as unwise, when two opinion polls since have both placed the Conservatives 23 points adrift of Labour, with Reform, itching to capitalise on this issue, now into double figures. Scores of Tory MPs, who are facing electoral oblivion as a result, may therefore feel this inflexible approach is distinctly sub-optimal.
Yesterday lunchtime, I chaired a meeting of five backbench Conservative groups, which received the verdict of the Star Chamber. After much discussion, the overwhelming view of that meeting was that rather than plough on with a clearly defective piece of legislation, the Government should withdraw the Bill today and then rapidly redraft legislation which is
actually fit for purpose.
What would Margaret have done? As a former barrister, I suspect she would never have allowed such a defective draft in the first place. She would have ensured that the legislation was legally watertight, even if this was in the face of internal opposition from her own Cabinet and European Judges.
The vote does not come until 7pm Tuesday night - so there is still time. Whatever he may like to claim, “Sir Keir Starmer ain’t no Margaret Thatcher!” The question now becomes, is Rishi Sunak?
The Rt Hon. Mark Francois is Member of Parliament for Rayleigh & Wickford and Chairman of the European Research Group.