Rwanda magic lantern show fails to hide problem at heart of UK government

Analysis: the Rwanda refugee scheme and the phoney war against the European Court of Human Rights are designed to shore up support for Johnson among his MPs

British prime minister Boris Johnson during prime minister's questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday. Photograph: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Two days after the introduction of legislation to unilaterally scrap the Northern Ireland protocol, a move widely condemned as reckless and illegal, Westminster has forgotten all about it. At prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, nobody asked Boris Johnson about the bill which has brought Britain’s relations with its nearest neighbours to a new low.

Keir Starmer found no time for it in any of his six questions to the prime minister, and putative rebels on the Conservative benches were silent on the subject. The caravan has moved on to view the latest spectacle: a magic lantern show involving home secretary Priti Patel, refugee flights to Rwanda and the European Court of Human Rights.

On Tuesday night the Strasbourg-based court blocked a flight due to take the first asylum seekers from Britain to Rwanda where their applications were to be processed and they were to be settled if successful. Britain’s top 25 bishops have denounced the scheme for offshoring refugees as immoral and shameful, but British courts gave Tuesday night’s flight the go ahead.

UK not ruling out quitting European rights convention after Rwanda flight groundedOpens in new window ]

Throughout Wednesday, Conservative MPs and ministers pumped up the outrage and Downing Street hinted that Britain could leave the European Court of Human Rights (which has nothing to do with the EU). Patel said she could not comment but in the House of Commons she offered sly support to MPs who called for withdrawal from the court and the human rights convention that underpins it.


Nobody believes that Britain will leave the court (of which Johnson’s grandfather James Fawcett was president) but like the refugee issue itself, criticising human rights lawyers is popular among Conservatives and makes Labour uncomfortable. Starmer ignored the issue altogether and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper could not bring herself to condemn the Rwanda scheme on moral grounds, criticising it instead for being inefficient and unrealistic.

Like the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, the Rwanda refugee scheme and the phoney war against the Strasbourg court are designed to shore up support for Johnson among his MPs, 148 of whom voted no confidence in his leadership last week. But as the resignation on Wednesday night of his ethics adviser Christopher Geidt highlighted, the source of Johnson’s troubles has not gone away.

Geidt resigned after tying himself in knots before MPs about whether the prime minister had breached the ministerial code in his statements about lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street. A former Guards officer and private secretary to Queen Elizabeth, Geidt is the latest in a succession of notables to have been brought low by their association with Johnson.

As each week passes more Conservative MPs are waking up to the fact that the problem at the heart of the government is the figure at the top of it, and no amount of international law-breaking or performative cruelty over refugees will change that.