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British PM Sunak is facing opposition to a controversial immigration policy

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Immigration is hardening political divisions on both sides of the Atlantic. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak held off a rebellion in his Conservative Party last week - for now. He's trying to push through a controversial policy that would allow the British government to send asylum seekers to Rwanda for processing. The government's already spent over $300 million, but Rwanda has yet to receive a single asylum-seeker after the policy was blocked by the British courts. Robert Shrimsley is following this for the Financial Times newspaper, where he's a political commentator and executive editor. Welcome to the program.

ROBERT SHRIMSLEY: Hello, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So what are the origins of this policy?

SHRIMSLEY: OK, so it dates back, I think, to a problem that began to spring up just around the time of the pandemic, when the numbers of asylum-seekers crossing the English Channel from France to come into Britain began to rise quite substantially. I mean, we're talking numbers now of around 45,000 a year. And it became a big political issue for the conservatives because the party to the right of them, which used to be known as the Brexit Party, led by Nigel Farage, started to make a bigger and bigger issue of this. And since one of the core points of Brexit was that the country would take back control of immigration, this was being used as a hammer against the conservatives to say, well, they're not taking control of immigration. And that's been the origins of the policy. But it's been very, very difficult for them to bring it to fruition.

RASCOE: And logistically and financially, does it make sense to try to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda?

SHRIMSLEY: We don't know is the simple answer, because none have been sent. I mean, more home secretaries have visited Rwanda than asylum-seekers at the moment. But it's never going to be large numbers. We're talking about hundreds rather than thousands. So the entire premise is that once people see that this is what's going to happen, they won't try and come. They'll stay in France or go somewhere else or whatever. So it's all predicated on a deterrent effect. Financially, well, I don't think it's the most cost-effective thing, but it could be cost effective if it really worked as a deterrent. The problem is, most people don't think it will work as a deterrent. And since the kind of people who are coming to Britain in small boats are frequently risking their lives to get to the U.K., it's not at all clear that they would regard this deterrent as sufficiently terrible to put them off.

RASCOE: Quite a few British prime ministers have been pushed out in recent years. Is Sunak risking his future on this issue?

SHRIMSLEY: Well, probably not, because we're only about a year away from a general election now anyway. And although there are people who would like to get rid of him within the Conservative Party, there isn't an obvious replacement. So realistically I don't think that he will be pushed out before an election, but he's in a lot of trouble anyway, and the odds would be that he would lose the election when it comes, which is why so many people are rebelling against him. And one of the reasons he's having difficulty is because he's not succeeding on getting a grip on immigration. It's one of the issues conservatives have talked up, and yet actually, their record has not been very good. So he's got his own problems, regardless of whether his party push him out.

RASCOE: Immigration is obviously a big issue here in the U.S. Do you see any parallels with what's playing out in the U.K.?

SHRIMSLEY: I think there are parallels across the Western world, actually - in the U.S., in parts of mainland Europe - you've seen in the Netherlands, you've seen in Italy, election successes for leaders who put immigration at the center of their campaign - obviously, we're also watching Marine Le Pen in France. And I think what you're seeing is a reconfiguring of the parties of the center right and of the conservative right who are beginning to make immigration and what I would call nativism a bigger part of their campaign pitch. And they believe this is going to grow and grow. And obviously, at the extreme end, at the far-right end, you have people talking great replacement theories. But even in what we consider to be mainstream political parties, you are having people begin to talk about the problems of multiculturalism and the issues of too many people coming in. And so I think what we are seeing is an attempt to reconfigure the British Conservative Party in the way that others have done to make immigration one of the absolute defining issues for them.

RASCOE: That's Robert Shrimsley. He is executive editor of the Financial Times. Thank you so much for being with us.

SHRIMSLEY: Pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.