Voices: Keir Starmer has the confidence of someone who knows asylum is now a Labour issue

Labour’s feeble policy won’t be the issue at the election (Parliament TV)
Labour’s feeble policy won’t be the issue at the election (Parliament TV)

It is a measure of how much trouble Rishi Sunak is in that Keir Starmer felt he could devote all six of his questions today to the subject of asylum and immigration. Some opinion polls suggest that voters prefer Labour to the Conservatives not just on immigration, but on Brexit and low taxes.

The world has turned upside down, and if the government fails to make significant progress in stopping the boats by the time of the election, the Conservative Party is going to be turned upside down at the ballot box.

Sunak’s defence is so bold that it suggests he either has a secret plan up his sleeve, or he is desperate. He said that Labour is on the side of the people-smugglers. He is, as he said yesterday, “up for a fight” over this issue – despite, as everyone else said yesterday, having no useable weapons with which to fight.

Still, he came to the Commons armed with some old quotations from Starmer, which showed the Labour leader to have been in favour of the free movement of people and against deportation flights. Starmer was briefly on the defensive, deciding during one of speaker Lindsay Hoyle’s many pointless interruptions that he had better actually deny one of the more outrageous libels thrown in his direction by the prime minister. “Nobody on this side wants open borders,” he said. That is not quite true, either, but the real criticism of Labour is that it has even less of a plan for dealing with the small boats than the government has.

The truest thing in Prime Minister’s Questions today was the mocking laughter from the Tory side of the Commons when Starmer said of his opponent: “If he were serious about stopping the boats, he’d steal our plan for stopping the boats.”

But Labour’s feeble policy won’t be the issue at the election. The only question on this subject will be: “Has Sunak stopped the boats?” The answer to that question is unlikely to be favourable to the prime minister.

Starmer set out some facts. Of 18,000 asylum seekers ruled ineligible for refugee status, only 21 had been returned. A year ago, Starmer pointed out, Sunak had said it was “unacceptable” that only 4 per cent of applications had been processed, and now it is less than 1 per cent. As Starmer said, Sunak is supposed to be good on detail, but all he could come up with were some irrelevant figures for the number of arrests, and the claim that the backlog had finally started to decrease.

Sunak’s only option is to play politics with the issue, accusing Starmer of being “just another lefty lawyer standing in our way”. That would be as effective a putdown as the Conservative side thought it was, were there any prospect of Sunak’s policy succeeding – but there isn’t.

Starmer asked a boring and reasonable question about what will happen to new arrivals who “can’t claim asylum and can’t be returned”, and shook his head with what seemed like heartfelt frustration at the non-answer, accusing the prime minister of being “absolutely deluded”.

Labour doesn’t have the answer, and when Labour was in government it considered options for the third-country processing of asylum claims that were just as offensive to liberal consciences as the proposals put forward since by successive Tory home secretaries. But the iron law of politics is that the government’s record is subject to more scrutiny than the opposition’s alternative policies.

It might be possible for Sunak to fight the election as a referendum between rival plans to stop the boats if the government’s record hadn’t been one of abject failure for the three or four years before the election.

But as the government’s record is one of abject failure, and as the latest plan is essentially the same plan that has failed before, the voters are disinclined to give the Conservatives the benefit of the doubt. As Suella Braverman, the home secretary, said yesterday: the British people’s “patience has run out”.

When Sunak concluded his answers to Starmer by declaring, “It’s going to be the Conservatives and only the Conservatives that stop the boats,” he must know that these are words that could come back to bite him.

Either he is desperate, recklessly making a promise he cannot keep in the hope that something will turn up and save him, or he has a secret deal with Emmanuel Macron for France to take back irregular migrants, which will surprise everyone when it is announced. If the election is in October next year, we have a lot less than 18 months to find out.