How does the UK government truly see the country of Rwanda? Is it as a vibrant and secure place to start a new life? Or is it – to adapt a phrase allegedly deployed by the home secretary about part of Teesside – a “shit-hole”? I think we probably know the answer. You might recall that back when former prime minister Boris Johnson’s government first floated the idea of processing asylum seekers abroad, it chucked out the names of both Rwanda and Albania as countries it was looking at working with. The Albanian government swiftly denied it would be involved, seemingly furious to have been named as some kind of bogeyman destination. Or, to repeat that home secretarial language, as a shit-hole.
I’m sorry if that sounds repulsive – I’m not stating my opinion, but surely the unspoken opinion of the entire policy. The government may not say it out loud, but the reason it has chosen Rwanda as the deterrent is because it thinks it sounds like a place no one in their right mind would want to go to. That may be completely unfair – but the unfairness is irrelevant. The view of Rwanda is inseparable from the explicit idea that it is a deterrent. Every picture of former home secretary Suella Braverman roaring with laughter on a Kigali construction site seemed to underscore this spectacularly dark and mirthless joke – the human equivalent of a tourist billboard reading: “There’s more to Rwanda than the genocide!”
So fair play to the Rwandans for laughing all the way to the bank. On Thursday night, the Home Office wrote to the chairs of the public accounts and home affairs select committees to confirm that by next year, the government will have paid out £290m to Rwanda – which hasn’t taken a single deportee, and on some current predictions may never do so.
There are a lot of sledgehammer ironies to Rishi Sunak’s bizarre sense that he is some kind of beacon to the nation, as our country is to the world. But few top yesterday’s unashamed warning to his party’s right that the policy can’t sail any closer to the legal wind or it will become something too dodgy or quasi-dictatorial for the Rwandan government. “As the Rwandans themselves have made clear,” Sunak explained, “if we go any further, the entire scheme will collapse.” Going “an inch further”, he had told the 1922 Committee the day before, meant Rwanda will collapse the scheme “and then we won’t have anywhere to send anyone”.
Oh man. I can’t believe I sound like I’m rooting for cuddly Paul Kagame here. But if the scheme does collapse because that particular authoritarian finds it too distasteful or illegal, it really ought to enter the annals of auto-satirical British policies 2016-23. Those are very very big annals, obviously.
Sunak has rather more political opponents than his Rwandan opposite number, it must be said, what with so many of Kagame’s having conveniently – and indeed literally – disappeared. The prime minister does not enjoy quite the same options, and now faces serious dissent on both wings of his party. The reason Sunak was in such a frightful bate while making that aforementioned speech on Thursday was because the immigration minister Robert Jenrick had dramatically resigned over the very Rwanda bill he was expected to help steward through parliament.
Jenrick’s character arc has covered a remarkable amount of ground in fairly short order, taking him from a remain-voting centrist nicknamed Robert Generic to a guy who ordered the painting over of a Mickey Mouse mural at an asylum centre for children. Purely on the basis of looking into his eyes multiple times on Google images – the only true character test – I can confirm Robert would collaborate with an occupying force in a heartbeat, then, after the liberation, would kill someone and frame them posthumously with his crimes. Conduct your own investigation by all means, but I dare you to conclude otherwise.
Anyhow. How did we get here? Jenrick was widely held to have been put into the Home Office to keep an eye on his former boss Suella Braverman, who was widely held to have been put into the Home Office because she backed Rishi Sunak in the second of last year’s two Conservative leadership elections, which saw him become the third British prime minister of 2022. Like I say – beacon to the world. Amazing that this exquisite system of undeserved patronage and hard-right babysitting has somehow malfunctioned, and seen Jenrick leave to start a new life in Earth’s most uncivilised territory (the Conservative backbenches).
As for what’s next, it says something about Rishi Sunak’s upcoming week that his appearance before the Covid inquiry on Monday might be the nice bit of it. Tuesday will see MPs vote on the Rwanda bill, while the Tory party chairman has already found himself warning his parliamentary colleagues against the “insanity” of forcing another leadership contest. Yup, fire up your thousand-yard stare. We already know they’re regicidal maniacs. The question is: are they mad enough to do it again before the next election? You’d have to think surely, surely not. Then again, the formbook cautions against ruling anything out in the Tories’ search for their eternal holy grail – “a proven election winner”. Tell you what they need: someone like Paul Kagame. I mean, the guy never loses. Perhaps the upper echelons of the party could go and take advantage of the Rwandan accommodation they’ve spent so much public money on, and ask him how he does it.
Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist
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