Santa Sunak’s immigration pledge as he breaks promise on workers’ rights

Commentary Opinion Policy & Politics

Rishi Sunak has used the cover of getting tough on immigration to ditch another manifesto promise and abandon a key levelling-up pledge to protect workers from rogue employers.

Perhaps it was a strategy devised at Monday’s (Dec 12) emergency Cobra meeting on how the government – but more importantly the country – will cope with a wave of strikes affecting the rail, health, postal and growing numbers of other sectors.

It’s a straightforward and simple tactic. And highly effective too given Grant Shapps’ statement to MPs about breaking another promise to voters has barely raised a murmur.

Ordinarily one might expect more eyebrows raised and focus given to news that the government is ditching another manifesto promise, whatever the promise was.

Given this pledge was to set up a “super watchdog” to protect the rights of Britain’s most vulnerable workers, and given the current backdrop of workers striking for rights and conditions as much as for pay, one would expect such a story to garner far more media attention than it has.

The 2019 Conservative party manifesto pledged to create a “single enforcement body” with statutory powers to compel companies to pay holiday and sick pay to vulnerable workers, enforce minimum wage laws and anti-slavery standards. However, on Tuesday, business secretary Shapps told MPs the government won’t be going ahead with this after all.

It’s not “on the cards”, Shapps told the Commons business committee. And it’s not in much of the media either, thanks to the PM’s turn in the Commons a little earlier where Rishi Sunak ensured the focus would definitely be elsewhere.

The PM turned up to parliament and threw down huge slabs of red meat for Tories to feast on with promises of (even) more legislation to tackle illegal immigration and toughen up Britain’s system.

Sunak’s five-point plan includes deporting thousands of Albanians every week following a new deal struck with the government in Tirana in order to clear a massive backlog in cases.

To cheers from MPs, Sunak promised a new small boat command to combat “illegals” crossing the channel; more immigration officers under a new command tackling the black market; and, ending the use of hotels for asylum seekers.

Sunak said his government “expects” to “abolish the backlog of initial [asylum] applications by the end of next year” by employing more immigration caseworkers and using specialists to fast-track claims from certain countries to clear a backlog of 150,000 cases.

To even louder baying from the benches behind him, Sunak promised new laws next year to make it illegal for anyone arriving illegally in the UK to remain in the UK. Only refugees who manage to get into the country using “safe and legal” routes will be allowed to stay, said Sunak, promising a quota on the total numbers that will be permitted in by his government each year.

Immigration is the government’s number one top priority, said Sunak, the son of migrants. After the economy, he quickly added.

“I said enough is enough, and I mean it,” said Sunak, who also meant what he said about onshore windfarms until he changed his mind and said the opposite.

Not that cock-a-hoop Conservative MPs could care any less. They now have something to take back to their constituencies at Christmas. But it’s something their constituents might wonder why it has taken so long to deliver. This past week marked three years since Boris Johnson’s historic election with a do-what-you-want 80 seat majority. And wasn’t that all about Brexit, immigration and “taking back control of our borders”?

Immigration is red meat for Tories

The successor to Johnson’s successor continued: “And that means I am prepared to do what must be done. So early next year we will introduce new legislation to make unambiguously clear that if you enter the UK illegally, you should not be able to remain here.”

Tory MPs’s salivated as if Sunak was carving up the festive turkey as the PM dialled up the rhetoric and piled up the red meat. He will detain and swiftly return refugees, asylum seekers and illegal migrants who “come here by cheating the system”. And if lawyers get involved and use the courts to prevent deportations, then he will introduce new laws to prevent that too. He is even going to toughen up the UK’s law on anti-slavery to make it harder for migrants to exploit claims of exploitation in their claims for asylum.

Santa Sunak’s reception from his own backbenches could not have been greater even if he’d polished the baubles on every Tory MP’s Christmas tree. Never mind the biting cost of living crisis, inflation, recession, rising unemployment or strikes across sectors and industries – Tories will always have “immigration” to fall back on and to stoke up their base.

Especially when nudged a little further to the right by Nigel Farage’s threats to return to front line politics and take their far-right vites

The problem is – whatever the issue or crisis, and as if often pointed out – the Conservative party has been in power since 2010.

Their litany of broken promises is reflected in the broken country they rule. But that doesn’t matter, so long as they rule.

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