What Sunak’s ‘small boats’ pivot says about him politically

When Rishi Sunak replaced former Conservative leader William Hague as the MP for the safe-seat of Richmond in 2015, the political landscape was in a very different state. The Conservatives were riding high, David Cameron had just won a majority and the Brexit referendum lay ahead. The then-prime minister spoke openly of his plan to retire quietly at the end of a full second term.

Of course, the big-picture story from the last seven years of British politics is that things did not play out quite how Cameron expected.  

Sunak backed Brexit early, at a time when most young Conservative MPs hoping for a government job loyally argued the case to remain in the EU. For Cameron, Sunak’s support for the Leave campaign was an early signal that he was beginning to lose the argument in his party. 

From here, Cameron collapsed; May filled the junior ministerial ranks with Brexit-backers like Sunak; and when Johnson took over — helped by a trifecta of “rising star” endorsements in Robert Jenrick, Oliver Dowden and of course Sunak — government was front-loaded with eurosceptics. Sunak took the number two in Sajid Javid’s Treasury, his first cabinet role. He even stood in for Johnson in national TV election debates, extolling the virtues of his prime patron to whom he owed his meteoric climb up the greasy poll. 

The Conservatives won in 2019, Sunak replaced Javid as Treasury lead and the rest, as they say, is history.

Sunak’s skilful navigation of the shifting dynamics of Conservative factionalism speaks in no small part to his political acumen. But the swiftness of Sunak’s irresistible rise nonetheless created problems. He had skipped the graft of opposition which proved so fruitful in honing Cameron’s political pitch; he had not benefitted from a profile-creating career beyond Westminster like Johnson; nor had he the conviction of Liz Truss, who tested her ideological zeal across government for a decade. 

It was telling in the summer leadership contest how Sunak, in stark contrast to rival Truss, struggled to set out a vision for government. For all of her political pitfalls, Truss succeeded in the summer leadership by defining the contest on her preferred terms. It trapped Sunak in a naysaying, tax-rising doom loop. Fiscal stolidity was far from farseeing enough to woo expectant activists.

Of course, Sunak would go on to win the argument on debt-funded fiscal loosening — but his accession was still defined, crucially, on Truss’ terms. Market-settling fiscal restraint is one thing, but the ideological vacuum created space for critics, not least of all his unrepentant predecessors.

So when interest rates were successfully settled, Sunak’s political imperative in late December was to build some momentum. After a stumbling start came a drip-drip of political victories: first was his decision to invoke Section 35 of the Scotland Act and block Holyrood’s gender recognition reform bill. It won plaudits within his own party and may have even hastened Nicola Sturgeon’s political decline. 

However, the big breakthrough came with the Windsor Framework — Sunak’s solution to the Northern Ireland Protocol impasse. Earning the support of Brexiteers including David Davis and Steve Baker, both of whom quit Theresa May’s government over her own proposals, the showdown allowed Sunak to stress his Brexit credentials. “I’m a Conservative, I’m a Brexiteer and I’m a Unionist”, the PM reassured his party. 

The Windsor Framework succeeded in stabilising Sunak’s position. Johnson and Truss were quieted and, after months of psychodrama, recalcitrant MPs were reminded of what policy delivery looked like. With political capital to spare for perhaps the first time in his premiership, Sunak hence turned to the thorniest of his “five pledges” for government: stopping the “small boats”. 

The new illegal migration bill, announced in the commons on Tuesday, is a striking piece of legislation. If passed, it would see arrivals on “small boats” detained within the first 28 days without bail or judicial review. It would place a legal duty on the government to deport almost anyone who arrives “irregularly” to the UK. And it would introduce a cap on the number of refugees offered sanctuary through safe and legal routes.

Some senior Conservatives have suggested that the prime minister is “over-promising” with the bill. Certainly, the expectation is that after a rhetorically charged commons stage, the bill will be fiercely resisted by other means: first in the Lords and then in the courts, both domestic and intentional.

But legal reality and political momentum need not move in turn. Braverman’s admission on Tuesday in her letter to Conservative MPs that there was a “more than 50 per cent chance” that the provisions of the legislation would be incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is more revealing politically than it is logistically. 

Firstly, the willingness to stare down the ECHR shows a newfound confidence and bullishness in government. The prime minister declared at a press conference on Monday that he is “up for the fight” on the bill, both it in parliament and in the judiciary. 

Critics will say the machismo is misplaced and the expectation-creation will prove electorally costly, but the rhetoric will feed the sense that this is an uncompromising Conservative government pursuing victories on their own terms. Sunak thinks it is a winning strategy versus Starmer’s perceived principlelessness. 

Secondly, it begs the question: what will Sunak do if the ECHR does decide to rule against the bill? Such a development would drive a wedge into his party between those comfortable with flouting the ruling and those not. Sunak has insisted that he does not expect the ECHR to rule against, but in challenging the court to make a decision, he may merely be setting himself up for a politically punishing climbdown. With “Stop the boats” celebrated as a “people’s priority”, the PM has special incentives to succeed on this bill. One wonders if the government has a “what next?” strategy if the ECHR intervenes. 

But thirdly and most significantly, the bill shows Sunak has come round to Suella Braverman’s way of framing the “small boats” issue. 

The home office was surrendered to Braverman during the October leadership contest. The much-reported deal was thus: Braverman would support Sunak, burst Boris’ comeback bubble and pave the way for mutually-assured career climbing. No 10 keys to Sunak, home office keys to Braverman: win, win. 

Now we see the consequence of this relentlessly right-wing political alliance.

Sunak’s tough talk, his tough rules, his bullishness, the desire to test the limits of international law and stare down the ECHR, it’s all straight out of the home secretary’s playbook. 

Whether Sunak is concerned first and foremost with doctrinal purity, party management or attempts to prod Labour’s positioning arguably does not matter. These are the terms of ideological reference he has set himself. Given his image as a Tory “moderate”, backed by one-nationers twice over versus Liz Truss then Boris Johnson, this is in essence a reinvention. The prime minister has marked himself out as a classic Brexit-backing, small boat-stopping Conservative. Inter-party attacks that Sunak is somehow “soft” will be entirely neutralised.

Now, with a potential row with the ECHR brewing and right-wing backbenchers feeling riled up and vindicated, only time will now tell whether Sunak’s image can withstand the pressure of events. But right now the political momentum is with No 10.