After 13 years in government, the Tories have run out of road. In the last year they have deposed two of their own prime ministers – one due to personal scandals, a second due to economic calamity. The inheritor of this mess, Rishi Sunak, sits atop a mountain of failures – the economy, the NHS, widespread strike action and the worst fall in living standards on record – and the ongoing scandals of his fellow Conservatives, from Dominic Raab’s alleged bullying to Matt Hancock’s mishaps and WhatsApps.

The Conservatives have only hate and division left in their arsenal. The well-thumbed divide-and-rule playbook is being brought back out – and refugees and migrants are the target.

The Government is proposing more draconian legislation – this time to ban people from re-entering the UK if they cross the Channel in small boats. The proposals appear to breach both human rights legislation and the UK’s commitments under the 1951 Refugee Convention.

The new legislation will apparently place a duty on the Home Secretary to remove anyone arriving on a small boat to Rwanda or a “safe” third country “as soon as reasonably practicable”, and ban them from returning permanently. No third country is going to take tens of thousands of people on behalf of the UK – even if such a scheme was legal. This is a government using legislation as a stunt.

At the time there was some surprise in Westminster about the appointment of Lee Anderson MP as Conservative Party deputy chair. It is now clear he has a remit to whip up hatred and division: touring the TV studios, especially the far-right platforms where hate and mistruth can go unchallenged, expressing sympathy with violent protests outside hotels and demonising people fleeing persecution. All this is gleefully amplified by elements of the right-wing press.

This is not one man going rogue, but part of a wider Government strategy. Rishi Sunak has pledged to “stop the boats”. Home Secretary Suella Braverman describes asylum seekers as an “invasion”. Her predecessor, Priti Patel, proposed to deport refugees to Rwanda – a policy relished by Braverman, who told a fringe meeting at Conservative Party conference, “I would love to be having a front page of The Telegraph with a plane taking off to Rwanda. That’s my dream. That’s my obsession.”

Leave aside the moral arguments about the policy of sending refugees to a dictatorship that the UK accused in 2021 of “human rights violations including deaths in custody and torture”, the scheme is a mirage. Even if operational the scheme would only lead to a few hundred people being relocated to Rwanda. At a time when the Government is pledging to “stop the boats”, the last year brought 40,000 people to our shores.

The reason why asylum seekers are currently being housed in hotels – sometimes for months at a time – is, according to a source at the Home Office, because resources have been wound down for years (the work has been downgraded to more junior grades and there has been a high turnover of employees at the Home Office), resulting in a backlog that has increased from under 20,000 in 2011 to over 140,000 at the end of 2022.

This is policy and media management and public manipulation. By whipping up this panic, the Conservatives are trying to mobilise an electoral coalition based on racism and fear.

But this is not a game and the rhetoric has real-world consequences. In October, a far-right activist firebombed a migrant processing centre in Dover in a terrorist attack. In February, far-right violence erupted outside a hotel in Knowsley, used to house asylum seekers, many of whom had fled the horrors of Assad’s Syria.

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So, what is the safe and legal route to get from Syria to the UK? There isn’t one. There are only schemes or “pathways” covering some Afghans, Ukrainians, and people from Hong Kong. For people fleeing war zones and persecution in places such as Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Eritrea, the only routes are illegal ones. Even with a “safe route” in place, only 22 people were accepted from Afghanistan.

A couple of weeks ago US senator Bernie Sanders visited the UK and, in an interview with Sky’s Sophy Ridge, assessed this strategy with clarity: “Don’t look at the people who really own the system. Don’t look at the ruling class. Don’t look at the people who caused the problems. Look at immigrants!”

As more people slip into poverty, more people languish on NHS waiting lists, and more Tory MPs are sunk by scandal, this Government has no answers, just hate and division.

As Labour MP Zarah Sultana succinctly put it: “The enemy of the working class travels by private jet, not migrant dinghy.” Don’t be fooled and don’t be divided.

Andrew Fisher is the former director of policy at the Labour Party

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