Would a Labour government stop the small boats crisis?

Keir Starmer has pledged to tackle the small boats crisis by cooperating with Europol on a security agreement, provoking Conservative ministers to accuse him of undermining Brexit.

In an opinion article for The Sun, the Labour leader outlined the party’s plans to tackle the rising numbers of asylum seekers arriving via dangerous Channel crossings

He proposed establishing a new cross-border police force with European crime agency Europol to smash the “evil criminal gangs making a mockery of us all”. He also described the threat of people smugglers as “on the same footing” as climate change, terrorism and hostile foreign powers, in terms of the danger they pose to national security.

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But even as Starmer arrived in The Hague to discuss a new security agreement with Europol today, Conservative ministers “pounced” on his suggestion that he would take in a quota of migrants from the EU as part of a “quid pro quo” returns agreements with Brussels, said The Times. They are “already out of the traps, accusing Starmer of wanting to give up control of immigration policy to the EU”. 

“He’ll let Brussels decide who comes to the UK”, posted Home Secretary Suella Braverman on X (formerly Twitter). “He’ll agree to make Britain the dumping ground for many of the millions of illegal migrants that Europe doesn’t want. And none of this will stop the boats.”

What did the papers say?

The Labour leader is “attempting to move on to Tory turf by setting out an immigration policy in which he promises to treat people smugglers like terrorists and ‘smash the gangs'”, said The Times’ Whitehall editor Chris Smyth.

However, Braverman’s attack “raises questions over the government’s policy towards pursuing a new EU returns deal”, said Smyth. In August, Downing Street said the prime minister “remained open” to such an agreement.

Starmer’s “small boats blitz” is “a move to quash any Tory attempts to use the small boats issue as an issue against Labour in the election”, said The Guardian‘s Andrew Sparrow. 

Sunak made “stopping the boats” one of his five priorities this year. But the government has “failed to implement its Rwanda policy” to deport asylum seekers, small boat crossings continue at record-high levels and the plan to house migrants on the Bibby Stockholm barge “collapsed when it had to be evacuated for health issues”. Labour is “already ahead as the party seen as best able to tackle migration“.

In policy terms, Labour’s plan is “limited”, said Sparrow, and not a radical departure from its five-point plan to reduce Channel crossings, which it revealed in August. “But he [Starmer] is being a bit more explicit about something that was always implicit”, that under Labour, the UK would agree to take in some asylum seekers “as part of a returns agreement with the EU that would allow small boat migrants to be returned”. This was “always the obvious implication”, but until now Starmer has been “reluctant to say so”. But in rhetorical terms, this is a “major escalation”.

Starmer insisted on ITV’s “Good Morning Britain” programme that a call for closer cooperation with the EU on small boats did not mean he was weakening his stance on Brexit or freedom of movement.

But he was “unable to say” how many asylum seekers the UK could take from the rest of Europe, noted The Daily Telegraph. When asked, “he would not be drawn” on a number, said The Independent.

“Not content with voting against every one of our measures to stop the boats, Keir Starmer is now opening the door to taking over 100,000 illegal migrants from the safety of the EU,” Robert Jenrick, the immigration minister, told The Sun.

Sunak said Starmer’s plans “seem to amount to saying that we might one day accept 100,000 EU migrants every year. That doesn’t seem like a credible plan to me to stop the boats.”

What next?

If the government succeeds in overcoming legal challenges and getting the first flights to Rwanda under way, “ministers will be able to attribute any reduction in the number of small boats to that policy”, said The Times. But Labour has “unequivocally committed to reversing the scheme and will be hoping against hope that its judgement that it will be a failure is correct”.

The risk, said The Times, is putting increased cooperation with Europe “at the heart of Labour’s alternative” to the Rwanda scheme. According to Matt Dathan, The Times’ home affairs editor, the European Commission is so far “refusing to comment on whether it would be open to Labour’s plans to negotiate a new migrant returns deal”. That is a departure, since the paper reported in August that the EU had rejected the Conservatives’ attempt to create a similar agreement. 

But, said The Guardian’s Sparrow, Starmer is sounding “a lot, lot tougher on small boats than he has before”. This goes down well with people who are concerned about migration.