Why is the government preparing for a U-turn on accepting more unaccompanied child refugees? George Osborne was speaking this morning on television about the ‘discussions’ that the government is having on this matter, which underlined that ministers are indeed going to announce concessions before MPs force them into accepting the Lord Dubs amendment to the Immigration Bill. He said:
‘Britain has always been a home to the vulnerable and we’ve always done what we need to do to help people who are fleeing persecution. That’s why we are taking people from the refugee camps as a result of this terrible Syrian civil war and we’re working with others, with charities, with other political parties, talking to people about what we can do to help the unaccompanied children as well, where we’re already providing financial support. So we are in those discussions and those discussions will go on and you will hear what we’ve got to say in due course.’
Of course, the government is preparing for a U-turn because the parliamentary arithmetic means it has no choice. But the reason the parliamentary arithmetic is the way it is is that ministers have lost the argument on refugees. Perhaps this was inevitable because their argument is a complex one that doesn’t fit easily on a hashtag. They fear that they will entice more children to make the dangerous journey to Europe alone by accepting the Dubs amendment, and argue that it is ultimately better for refugees to remain near the country they have fled from, because most refugees do want to return home if and when they can, and the country they call home needs them to do so too if it is to have a chance of rebuilding. This is a difficult argument to make, though, when those in favour of the Dubs amendment can speak of the Kindertransport. But it is also difficult when more nuanced voices like Yvette Cooper are arguing that lone child refugees are not safe once they reach the shores of Europe, anyway, and so therefore the government should be giving sanctuary to vulnerable children.
But whatever the wrongs and rights of the policies bing proposed, ministers have lost the political argument. On matters like this, politics trumps policy in the Westminster game of rock, paper, scissors. And with every U-turn and concession, it becomes even more difficult to make the argument again when the next Commons revolt approaches, which in time it will.