When Rishi Sunak unveiled his “priorities” for 2023 in January, he sounded like a man trying to convince sceptics that his New Year’s resolutions would not fizzle out within a matter of weeks.
The Prime Minister enshrined those priorities in five concrete “pledges”, before going even further and describing them as five “promises” to the British people. “We will halve inflation, grow the economy, reduce debt, cut waiting lists and stop the boats,” he said.
The aim of setting himself these targets was to restore public faith in politics. “No tricks, no ambiguity. We’re either delivering for you or we’re not.” He couldn’t have been clearer.
But on the issue of stopping the Channel crossings, things are now far from clear. When I asked the PM’s official spokesman on Wednesday if he was promising to “stop the boats” by the end of this year or by the time of the next election, he replied: ”I don’t think we put specific timelines on that”.
For such a landmark pledge that was apparently unambiguous, it’s strange that defining it has proved to be like nailing a jelly to a wall.
Just a few weeks ago, in an interview that deserves more publicity, Home Secretary Suella Braverman was asked directly by ITV News if she could promise she would have stopped the boats by the end of this year.
At first, Braverman sounded remarkably specific. “You can judge me on results. Words don’t matter. We have told you that we want to stop the boats. You will come here in a year or so and it’ll be very clear whether we’ve succeeded or not,” she said. “We will see a dramatic reduction in the numbers arriving illegally.”
Unfortunately, Braverman immediately undermined that clarity by saying: “I’m not going to put a time scale on it.” On Wednesday, she sounded even less confident, admitting to BBC Radio 4 that “we may see in the region of 40,000 people or more” crossing the Channel in 2023. And she confessed “it may well be” that 80,000 make the crossing, on one Home Office estimate.
Of course, even a dramatic reduction in a year’s time wouldn’t be the same as meeting a pledge to “stop the boats” completely. Which is why some Tory MPs were frankly baffled that Sunak ever used the phrase in the first place.
The original New Year’s “priority” was actually much more limited in its ambition: “passing new laws to stop small boats”. Given the PM has a majority of 66, passing a new law would have been a more shrewd target. But, possibly swayed by the power of the three-word slogan that proved successful in Australia 10 years ago, his “promise” to “stop the boats” is now here to stay.
While most governments set themselves targets to measure their success, this one is perhaps unique in deliberately setting itself a target that is doomed to fail. That’s because it thinks it can pin that failure on others.
Given the apparent impossibility of meeting the ambition before an October 2024 election, it certainly feels like the political aim of the new legislation (which has on its first page an admission that it risks breaching international law) is to create a blame game – with the courts, lawyers and Labour in the firing line.
In Prime Minister’s Question time, that strategy was laid bare when Sunak accused Keir Starmer of being “just another lefty lawyer standing in our way”. Although the attack line prompted Tory cheers, it’s hard to see it landing in an election campaign with floating voters because of Starmer’s record as Director of Public Prosecutions in extraditing rapists and others.
Starmer’s strongest suit in PMQs was to focus not on the Government’s lack of compassion but its lack of competence. Of the 18,000 people deemed ineligible to apply for asylum last year by the Nationality and Borders Act, just 21 had been removed from the UK.
Less than one per cent of those who had arrived by boat had had their status processed, leaving thousands to sit for months in hotels or other accommodation paid by the taxpayer. Labour’s own attack line is obvious: a little less legislation, a little more action please.
Aside from his ineffective legal solutions, the managerial solutions in Sunak’s plan make sense: more Home Office staff to cut the backlog of cases, creating alternative accommodation to hotels, closer working with the French to boost patrols, and crucially more safe routes for asylum seekers.
But there’s a political danger lurking for Sunak from his own side too. In setting up a clash with the courts, he risks his party forcing him to fight the next election on a manifesto pledge to pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights. That’s something that could cause a real split as the “legal wing” of the party (it’s not just Labour which is stuffed with lawyers).
Tory MP Jackie Doyle Price spoke for several Conservatives when she told a recent backbench WhatsApp group: “Upholding the law should never be a matter for debate for a Conservative. Our Home Office is crap. If the government wants to have a phone[y] war over the ECHR instead of sorting itself out it can do it without me.”
Braverman (who is not a fan of the ECHR) also hasn’t given up hope of her own leadership ambitions, with some Tories assuming she will blame Sunak’s No 10 for any failure. When asked on Wednesday if she would resign, she pointedly said the PM himself had made this a priority. That felt like a dark hint that if she had to quit, so would he.
Yet any failure to “stop the boats” would be a gift to Nigel Farage as much as to Starmer’s Labour. Giving greater salience to the issue of illegal immigration risks upsetting both those who want tougher action and those who think it’s not a priority compared to the economy and NHS.
The problem for Sunak is that while he has been making progress on Northern Ireland, Brexit and strikes (even the RMT seems to be in the mood for a deal), his overpromise on small boats risks highlighting a history of failure. Instead of Mister Fixit, he may look like Mister F*cked It.
The Tories can try to run away from their international obligations on refugees, but they can’t run away from their record in office. And Sunak put it best in his New Year’s speech when he said: “People don’t want politicians who promise the earth and then fail to deliver.”