OPINION - Rishi Sunak hit by backlash over plans to end small boats crisis

 (Ben Turner)
(Ben Turner)

The term ‘Catch-22’ was coined by Joseph Heller in his 1961 masterpiece of the same name. Partway through the satirical war novel, the author describes the absurd position in which pilots found themselves through the character Doc Daneeka, an army psychiatrist.

The problem was this: crazy people obviously cannot be allowed to fly planes but anyone requesting mental evaluation for insanity – hoping to be found not sane and therefore avoid dangerous missions – has by definition proved their own sanity and is therefore fit to fly. Daneeka sums it up thus: “Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.” You can watch the scene from the 1970 film here.

A similar issue is to be found with refugees on small boats making the treacherous journey across the English Channel to Britain. The UK government wants to make it an essentially pointless endeavour, by ensuring that anyone making the trip is unable to claim asylum in the UK. Instead, they must instead arrive by safe, legal routes.

The catch is, however, that unless you are from Afghanistan, Ukraine or Hong Kong, there are no nationality-specific avenues. Yet the Home Office’s own data demonstrates that plenty of people from outside of those three locations have a legitimate asylum claim once they make it to Britain. In the year ending December 2022, the grant rate for people from Iran was 80%, Sudan 84%, Eritrea 98% and Syria 99%.

For the prime minister, the political motivations to address, or at least be seen to address the small boats issue, is imperative. Doing so made it into his five key priorities. But there are risks. A perennial problem for this government, is over-promising and under-delivering.

Last year, former prime minister Boris Johnson suggested that “tens of thousands” of people could be deported to Rwanda. Yet the country only ever had capacity in the low hundreds, and of course none were sent due to legal challenges.

The frisson of action without delivering results therefore only serves to stoke frustration and mistrust amongst those for whom this is an important issue. And regardless of success, it has the clear potential to see the Tories leak further support among more liberally minded voters to the Lib Dems in the south of England.

Furthermore, it is unclear what impact this new legislation will have, not least when the government already possesses significant powers under last year’s Nationality and Borders Act, which amongst other things put into law that “those who arrive illegally in the UK – who could have claimed asylum in another safe country – can be considered as ‘inadmissible’ to the UK asylum system.”

As long as there is war and political persecution, people will want to come to Britain – a rich, tolerant and democratic country. If there are few legal, safe routes, some will instead take the dangerous path. To argue otherwise would only mark us out as the crazy ones.

Elsewhere in the paper, Former Brexit Secretary David Davis has suggested that awarding Boris Johnson’s father Stanley a knighthood would bring the honours system into “disrepute”. Labour leader Keir Starmer said the “public will just think this is absolutely outrageous.”

In the comment pages, Rob Rinder writes that it’s never too late to change your path in life — as this story shows. Leroy Logan says that as a former policeman, the Public Order Bill spells trouble. While Financial Editor Simon English warns that if the Chancellor’s exciting new plan costs or saves less than £25 billion, it’s a waste of time.

And finally, I’m possibly the last person in London not to have tried Mount Street’s lobster pie – you know, the one with the head, roasted and exposed, climbing out. Here are some other good ones you can get for less than £100.

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