In the post-Brexit wreckage, just one Tory strategy remains: the theatre of cruelty | John Harris

Five years ago, I went to Coventry to meet a married couple from Sri Lanka who were stuck in the UK’s asylum system. Under the auspices of a deal between the Home Office and one of its favoured private contractors, they and their two children lived in a house just outside the city centre. Two of the rooms were riddled with damp. A faulty central heating system meant the house was either impossibly cold, or so hot that it inflamed their baby daughter’s eczema.

Then, as now, the law dictated that neither parent could work, so the family were living on an allowance of just over £20 a day. “We worry about the kids’ health,” they told me: everything they said was full of dread and anxiety, thanks to a day-to-day existence that was seemingly going to grind on indefinitely.

I was introduced to that family by the pressure group Migrant Voice, which had just published a report about standards of accommodation for people seeking asylum. The testimony it included painted the same awful picture: “One room is always wet when it rains, so no one sleeps there”; “Currently I am experiencing a horde of flies because of dead rats in the kitchen.” To make things even grimmer, there was an abiding sense of a system whose dysfunction and sclerosis were most of the way to being completely intentional, in keeping with the government’s “hostile environment” doctrine.

At that point, there were about 40,000 such people, housed by the Home Office and awaiting decisions on asylum claims. Now that number has ballooned to more than 160,000, and the conversation about this area of policy has shifted to all that noise and controversy about hotels. Amid accounts of people – including children – staying in such facilities for well over a year, another report from Migrant Voice is due in about a fortnight. Though it will acknowledge that some just about meet the required standards, it will also describe people living and sleeping alongside complete strangers, with overburdened toilets and bathrooms, a complete lack of privacy and dignity, and security guards arbitrarily demanding to know the details of their hour-to-hour movements.

Meanwhile, the descent of Suella Braverman’s ministry speeds on. On Sunday, the home secretary – who says she wants to be “a doer, someone of action” – did a characteristically inflammatory round of interviews, defending her intention to send people to Rwanda as she was reminded that only five years ago, 12 refugees were killed by police there in the midst of protests about their treatment (“I’m not familiar with that particular case,” she said, which is quite an answer).

Robert Jenrick: asylum seekers’ housing to meet ‘essential living needs and nothing more’ – video

She was also asked about plans to house asylum seekers in requisitioned “barges” and disused military facilities. “We are looking at all sorts of lands [sic], sites and vessels,” she insisted. It all reflected a plain political fact – that as the illegal migration bill goes through parliament and asylum gives way to a policy of summary deportation, even the patina of basic decency has evaporated. “Accommodation for migrants should meet their essential living needs and nothing more,” said Braverman’s ministerial colleague Robert Jenrick last week. And this is the polite version.

Jonathan Gullis, the increasingly infamous Conservative MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, recently made a speech in the Commons that, in its own very small way, may well mark post-Brexit politics’ moral nadir. When it came to the future accommodation of asylum seekers, he said, “there are disused army bases, and I have no issue with the use of Portakabins or tents. They are perfectly acceptable short-term accommodation [sic], so long as we deliver on the policy of ensuring that people are removed after 28 days to a safe third country. Rwanda is perfectly safe.”

By way of constant mood music, there are the outpourings of Lee Anderson, a deputy chair of the Conservative party, the MP for a seat in the old Nottinghamshire coalfield, and a newly appointed presenter on GB News, which will be paying him an annual £100,000 – in return, presumably, for continuing to insist that asylum seekers ought to be “sent back the same day”, and that recent far-right protests outside some of the aforementioned hotels have been made up of “normal family people”.

Which brings us to an integral element of modern politics: the idea that all this cruelty is simply what the public demand, not least in the fabled “red wall”. Clearly, some people have pungent opinions about refugees and the asylum system, and this is true in many of the post-industrial places that switched from Labour to the Conservatives in 2019. As ever, it is not hard to work out part of the reason why: if you have always had the sense of being neglected, and everyday life is often insecure and precarious, then hyped-up accounts of massed new arrivals (who are also said to be “illegal”) and clear evidence of a system in disarray will sound not just like the stuff of administrative chaos, but an indirect warning of even less housing, even lower wages and even more fragile public services.

That is not to claim that the nastiness of some people’s views is merely an expression of poverty and inequality, and thereby absolve them of responsibility. But it is also worth looking at all this from the other end of the moral telescope: if there were more homes and secure jobs, and we had seen even the beginnings of the rebalancing that was promised after the Brexit referendum, does anyone think that these people and places would be nearly as irate as the Tories claim? I don’t.

To understand the tensions within red-wall Conservatism, you have to keep an eye on two sets of headlines. One is all about the cynical blurring of issues relating to refugees and immigration, the government’s appalling running down of its own asylum system, and legislation that has more to do with posturing than anything halfway practical, let alone ethical. The other is about a very different set of promises and pledges, and how few of them have been delivered.

The government has spent less than 10% of its £4.8bn levelling up fund since it was launched in 2020; even some of the most ambitious projects have barely been started. And however much money has been awarded for local regeneration bids, austerity goes on. In Gullis’s home patch, the Tory council may have recently announced big regeneration plans, but it is implementing a cuts programme that takes in mental health care, street lighting, libraries, transport for children with special needs, and more. On Anderson’s home turf, the key grant the district council receives from Whitehall has gone from £15m to £100,000 over the past 10 years.

As an election looms, a panicked government has a new strategy that is actually very old: kicking around some of the weakest and most vulnerable people, in the hope that organised nastiness might restore the air of effectiveness that its failures have fatally undermined. The Labour party is too nervous about the red wall to point out much of this. But it is there, as clear as day: politics as a constant theatre of cruelty.

Some people, it seems, must suffer trauma, intolerable living conditions, sleepless nights and what amounts to internment, so the voters who seem to have gone back to Labour might somehow change their minds. The morals that calculation reveals are obviously bankrupt: if there are any halfway decent Tories left, it might be time to finally speak up.

The Guardian