Picture by Rory Arnold / No 10 Downing Street

Week-in-Review: Sunak applies brakes as ‘stop the boats’ strategy spirals

Today marks one year since the UK signed the deal to deport illegal migrants to Rwanda. Since then — of course — rather a lot has changed. 

Back in 2022, it was Priti Patel who jet-setted to Kigali tasked with signing the new asylum accord on behalf of Boris Johnson’s government. Today, both Patel and Johnson languish in the Conservative party wilderness — banished from cabinet and replaced as Rwanda scheme cheerleaders by Suella Braverman and Rishi Sunak. Patel’s deportations policy is Sunak’s generous inheritance. 

The numbers have changed too: more than 1,000 people were recorded crossing the channel on “small boats” in the seven days to April 9, bringing the total for 2023 to 4,850. And with a Court of Appeal hearing on the Rwanda policy slated for April 24, the total cost of the venture is approaching £140 million. That is despite the fact that 48 per cent of the public believe the policy will fail in its role as a deterrent according to a poll by think tank More in Common. 

And then there’s the political temperature. Since emerging as PM in October, Sunak has calculated that ramped up rhetoric on “small boats” might spark a polling comeback for his party. And in March — having traded for nearly a year on the soon-to-be-ripe fruits of the Rwanda policy — a new strategy was inaugurated by way of the illegal migration bill.

The new legislation was styled as Sunak acting decisively on the fifth, and most politically sensitive, of his “five pledges” for government. Naturally, the bill was debuted to a deluge of chatter about “delivery” and “priorities”.

But the illegal migration bill is far from the Conservative party’s first legislative clampdown on asylum seekers. Under the Nationality and Borders Act passed by parliament in 2021, people who arrive in the UK without prior permission and who “could have claimed asylum in another safe country” are already seen as “inadmissible”.

So — from the Nationality and Borders Act to the Rwanda asylum plan and now the illegal migration bill — the government’s approach to the “small boats” over the past two years has developed a curious momentum. On a weekly basis, “small boats” are distended with the desires of the Conservative party’s grassroots.

But the familiar cycle of new pledge, turn new policy, turn political punishment for Keir Starmer has pitfalls for Conservatism too. The expectation creation inherent in the Conservative party’s two-year-long “small boats” blitz is fast becoming tyrannical. 

Indeed, by announcing “stop the boats” as one of his five pre-election pledges, Sunak essentially guaranteed that both the media and the Labour party would station themselves along the south coast come an election, pointing to the beaches and educating the public that — two bills and one international treaty later — the boats had not, in fact, “stopped”.

As Paul Goodman pointed out during the PM’s recent interview with ConservativeHome, the crossings commitment is hardly vague. “You pledged to ‘stop the boats’”, Goodman told Sunak, “not reduce the number, not bring the number down — actually to stopping them”. 

There is a problem too that such a pledge — writ in blue banner backgrounds across the country — cannot be amended. The PM will be forced to talk about Channel crossings until either they are stopped or he is at a general election.

It seems that the PM was aware of this reality as he unsubtly screeched his “small boats” strategy to a halt during his ConservativeHome girlling. Under question from Goodman, Sunak detailed:

I’ve always said this is not something that is easy. It is a complicated problem where there’s no single, simple solution that will fix it and I’ve also said it won’t happen overnight

The problem for the prime minister is that this is (1) defeatist and (2) essentially a U-turn. His reluctance to roll out a pre-election schedule on “small boats” jarred notably with the commitment of Oliver Dowden, one of the PM’s closest cabinet confidants, who said last month that the government was “committed to [stopping the boats] by the end of this parliament”.

Worryingly for Sunak, the backtracking will now create incentives for backbench Conservative MPs to radicalise their assumptions. The prime minister had barely made his way off the ConservativeHome stage before Andrea Jenkins had issued a stinging reprieve. The MP said in a letter: 

As you rightly stated, this is not a simple issue to resolve, with many competing factors to take into account. Yet we are able to remove one of these factors from the equation entirely. It is unjustifiable for the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to have the ability to wade into this matter

As things stand, there is no commons majority for quitting the ECHR altogether, but the force of events may begin to propel the prime minister to at least ignoring an unwanted decision. Although the PM was able to bury the anti-ECHR amendment put forward by Danny Kruger at the illegal migration bill’s commons committee stage — one imagines his pitch was rather different than that which he gave to Goodman on Thursday. Sunak’s latest comments may just ensure that a future hostile amendment makes it to a commons vote. 

Crucially, during the last debate on the illegal migration bill, home secretary Suella Braverman was widely thought to be privately pushing Kruger’s anti-ECHR line. Whispers at Westminster suggest the home secretary may be even willing to become a martyr to the “stop small boats” cause if the PM does not radicalise his stance. One wonders how she will have received the PM’s ConservativeHome comments.

On a broader point, Sunak’s “small boats” strategy is now emerging as a glaring vulnerability in his pitch as a problem solver. Despite making progress on the Windsor Framework, the Spring budget and the CPTPP trade deal — none of these points have their own especially-curated, pre-election “pledge”. Sunak knows that on “small boats” he has special incentives to deliver. One wonders what the consequences will be within his own party if he decides he cannot.