Addressing these contentious issues inevitably involves a fight – not least with your own side
February 27, 2023 6:16 pm
Remember, this is a leader whose whole pledge was to be a safe pair of hands – both before Liz Truss’s premiership and certainly since (served with an added dollop of “I told you so”).
Interestingly, on some areas he seems willing to take more political risks than might otherwise be assumed. On both Channel crossings and Northern Ireland, Sunak seems to be working on the basis that immediate pain for the Government is bearable on the assumption that it proves to be short term and sets the conditions for longer term benefits.
Nobody thought that either policy challenge would be easy to resolve, and it’s to the Prime Minister’s credit that he has never made such a claim. He might in fact have been well advised to roll the pitch a bit more on each, by talking publicly about the difficulties the Government faces.
Nevertheless, it’s obvious that he couldn’t and shouldn’t ignore them. Each has a political importance borne of its real-world impact, further inflated by having become emblematic of wider sensitivities and disputes.
It isn’t Sunak’s fault that Theresa May so badly burned the fingers of Brexiteers and Northern Irish unionists, leaving each with a heightened sense that they might be sold out, nor that so much big talk by predecessors about crushing the people smuggling gangs is yet to bear fruit, but those form part of his in-tray whether he likes it or not.
No doubt every prime minister would prefer not to have to tackle problems created by others, but that’s part of their fate. If you’d like the top job, then you have to accept it. Wishing it were otherwise doesn’t get you very far.
Having taken on that inheritance, and chosen the standard of serious government and pragmatic solutions, as the rallying point of his government, Sunak therefore has nowhere to hide, and no option but to publicly grapple with issues like the small boats and the status of Northern Ireland.
A study of either of these contentious fields would reveal that addressing them inevitably involves a fight, not least with your own side. So while his character might be less pugnacious and confrontational than Boris Johnson or Truss, his message and his circumstance compels him to get stuck in.
What’s interesting is that on each topic, the Prime Minister seems to have chosen to embrace that risk early, in the hope of clearing the decks to allow subsequent progress.
Take the Channel crossings and the huge asylum backlog, for example, where the new fast track policy has been identified by some as an “amnesty in all but name”. That is a very risky thing to do if it proves to be the case and is noted down as such by the many voters who are deeply concerned about the integrity and security of our borders.
But Downing Street’s calculation seems to be that for any new policy to stand a chance of measurable, lasting success in reducing new crossings by small boat, first the Government needs to dramatically change the position on the accumulated backlog.
On Northern Ireland, too, they are chancing their arm with a portion of their vote – and Parliamentary Party – that might easily be infuriated by the slightest hint of a betrayal. The Prime Minister has worked hard to hug close longstanding Brexiteers like Steve Baker, the former ERG chairman, but this deal is still a risk among Eurosceptics and Unionists. As I write, ERG and DUP parliamentarians and lawyers are scrutinising the newly presented deal for sore spots, particularly the role of the ECJ in NI law and whether unionist MLAs do or do not wield a veto. Those deliberations have produced vexed disputes in the past, and may well do so again.
Here, too, the view is that entering such choppy waters might be difficult but it is a prerequisite to have any chance of practical progress down the line.
On the surface, both decisions look and sound like what we might call the Blair-Cameron trade-off: an outright exchange in which one’s standing with core voters is risked in exchange for what one hopes will be a larger number of floating and middle-ground voters.
There’s an element of that, certainly, but the gamble isn’t simply in that electoral exchange. Sunak is gambling more heavily on time being on his side: both decisions bring early risks, and early costs, but he hopes that he will have time to capitalise on the opportunities opened up by each to a sufficient degree before the next election.
Tory strategists therefore take the view that, come polling day, voters will remember and value a successful record of stopping the boats and clearing the asylum backlog, over and above these uncomfortable early steps to make it possible, for example.
If he calculates wrong, of course, then he might end up with the worst of both worlds: all the political pain among his aggrieved base, and none of the gains among the voters he hopes to convince. Time is the main factor, and time is tight – but that’s exactly why he’s grasping the nettle now, to make the most of what remains.
Mark Wallace is Chief Executive of Total Politics Group and director of ConservativeHome, a blog that is independent of the Conservative party