Labour leader Keir Starmer’s new immigration plan is not about tackling small boats – it is about cosying up to Europe

‘Europa and the bull’, a landscape painting by Jan Brueghel the Younger, oil on oakwood, circa 1621-22. In Greek mythology, Europa, a Phoenician princess—and for whom the continent of Europe may be named after—was abducted by Zeus in the form of a bull. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)


The Labour leader and near shoo-in as the next UK Prime Minister, Sir Keir Starmer, is feeling pretty confident of victory. To prove this he has decided to take on the perennially difficult, and politically contentious issue of immigration.

In a media blitz, followed up by a trip to Paris and a chinwag with President Macron on Monday, he has launched  a new policy with two faces.

While talking to the red meat eating and demanding readers of The Sun (Britain’s most visceral voice on immigration) he provides blood and for The Times (a more discerning audience) he has a very different timbre.

To The Sun it is hellfire and damnation, he talks about a new UK police unit that will fight against the criminal gangs behind the trafficking.

Starmer’s new police unit will operate both at home and abroad and  would equate traffickers with terrorists. He is proposing using serious crime prevention orders – to restrict individuals’ movements and freeze their assets – against them. This is described as the opposite of a half baked idea.  Essentially to a Sun reader this is tantamount to invading France, something that will go down well in that quarter.

For the The Times audience there is far more nuance. In order to do this, says the Labour leader, he would join in the proposed European Union scheme by which each country takes a quota of the migrants arriving on European shores. And get back into the EU returns scheme.

Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, gives a speech at an event hosted by the Centre For European Reform in London, England, 4 July 2022. Starmer’s speech laid out his plan to “make Brexit work”. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

He makes the strong claim that right now because of the UK’s post Brexit withdrawal from the scheme, today it is not the UK and its authorities that decide who comes to Britain. No, he points out that it is the people smugglers. The very ones that he, and he alone, will hunt across Europe, like some new version of the Special Operations Executive, operating behind enemy lines.

The problem with all this is so plain as to be impossible for some to see. The target audience is not in fact The Sun reading and formerly Boris voting Eurosceptic core of the country’s vote, but to shore up support in the latte drinking classes. This is another step on the path to rejoin.

His meeting with Macron on Monday is planned to get the French President’s acquiescence to the idea of British boots in Sangatta, near Calais on France’s north coast.

The fact that he is willing to take part in the EU migrant quota scheme, when actual EU members such as Poland, Hungary, Austria, Denmark, Latvia and Slovakia  are rejecting it, will create a very fuzzy feeling in Brussels and in UK Rejoiner hearts.

Estimates from last year suggest that there would be 130,000 migrants being accepted by the UK, decided upon, not by the UK but by the EU. And of course by the traffickers who will not be deterred by the secret army. Any quid pro quo deal with France and elsewhere about UK boots on continental soil would require French boots in the greensward of Kent. This naturally is not mentioned in Starmer’s epistle to Sun readers.

As for rejoining the returns programme, what sounds good on paper is preposterous in reality.

In the final year when the UK was involved in 2019, 21 people were returned from the UK to France. In the 22 months between January 2019 and October 2020 only 237 were sent back to any other EU nation. In fact between 2017 and 2019 the UK received 2,390 people and removed only 786.

That he can get away with such chutzpah is largely down to the sheer incompetence of the Conservative approach to migration.

Having talked a very good fight in 2019, disillusion has set in fast. The Tories have presided over 500,000 new arrivals in the last year alone, including 50,000 arriving on small boats across the Channel.

On one side of the English Channel across from mainland Europe, the White Cliffs of Dover are illuminated by the rising sun on 6 September 2020. Tens of thousands of migrants have crossed the Channel in small boats to reach England since Brexit. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

For the first time since records began, Labour now leads the Conservatives on immigration. This is not because Labour has better policies, but merely because the Tories have been such a catastrophic failure.

Even the underlying polls, where since Brexit immigration was dropping down as a key issue and people believed the rhetoric of taking back control of the borders, have seen a reversal. Hard opposition to continued migration is starting to rise again, now at over 40 per cent.

There is nothing in Starmer’s policies that will make any difference to the numbers coming to the UK. They are either unworkable (boots on the ground) or politically unsellable in the UK (letting Brussels decide who comes).

Given that this is clearly the case, why has he made these promises? The only serious explanation must be that when he looks from the white cliffs over Dover, he is not looking into the surf where the traffickers ply their trade, but further over the horizon to Brussels, where his message is one of deep re-engagement with the EU itself.