Week-in-Review: The anatomy of Theresa May’s ‘small boats’ intervention

The illegal migration bill cleared its final commons stage by 289 votes to 230 on Wednesday as an inter-Conservative party battle over amendments and the role of the European Court of Human Rights failed to materialise.

The relative quiet of Wednesday’s vote reflects, in part, the number and breadth of concessions No 10 had made to rebels on the Conservative right. During its meetings with government ministers, the “common sense group” of right-wing Conservative MPs had exacted some significant movement, including an amendment enabling the government ignore injunctions made by the ECHR (known as rule 39 orders) in some circumstances.

As former attorney general Sir Geoffrey Cox put it in the commons on Wednesday: “[The minister] is effectively asking this House to give legislative sanction … that a minister of the Crown will deliberately disobey the international law obligations of this country”. Robert Jenrick, the minister tasked with navigating the illegal migration bill through its final commons stages, could not disagree. “This clause … says clearly to ensure that there is no doubt whatsoever that the minister has the discretion” to ignore ECHR rule 39 injunctions, he detailed. 

Jenrick is something of a case study in how the government has radicalised its approach to Channel crossings since last year. Upon his appointment, the immigration minister was viewed as a restraining, moderating influence in the home office — he would be Sunak’s eyes and ears in the department, charged with legislative delivery while Suella Braverman conducted the heavy lifting with the party right. Now, all of Sunak, Braverman and Jenrick seem joined at the hip on “small boats” strategy — both in terms of policy substance and rhetorical dressing. 

“Excessive uncontrolled migration threatens to cannibalise the compassion that marks out the British people”. That was how Jenrick sold the illegal migration bill at a Policy Exchange event this week. Braverman later repeated the comments, adding: “I think that the people coming here illegally do possess values which are at odds with our country”.

The electoral rationale behind the amped-up approach is obvious. Sunak and his advisers know that Reform UK (the restyled Faragist Brexit party) will siphon off votes from the Conservative party come the next election if no action is taken. In the end, Sunak calculates that the illegal migration bill — and its lurch to the right with recent amendments — is worth the immediate moral backlash. 

Of course, the lead individual backing the backlash in the Conservative party this week was Theresa May, prime minister only four years ago. 

Addressing the commons on Wednesday, May warned that more people will be left in slavery by the government’s asylum reforms. The former home secretary, who had held talks with the government over her concerns, described one amendment tabled by ministers as a “slap in the face” for those who care about the victims of modern slavery and human trafficking. 

She explained: “[Amendment 95], far from making the provisions better for the victims of modern slavery, makes it worse. And I believe that my right honourable friend was talking to me in good faith [during our meetings]. But I have to say, it’s hard to see this government amendment 95 as an example of good faith”.

As the illegal migration bill heads to the House of Lords, where it will be accosted by hostile amendment after hostile amendment, May’s position here could prove significant. Modern slavery looks set to be a key area where peers will challenge the government. 

being a former prime minister 

The activism of his prime ministerial predecessors has been a consistent theme of Rishi Sunak’s premiership six months in. Boris Johnson and Liz Truss have tried incessantly to heighten the PM’s political pain during his most difficult moments, taking antagonistic positions on issues including fiscal policy, housebuilding targets, onshore wind and Brexit. 

Truss and Johnson’s post-No 10 manoeuvres culminated with a rebellion over the Windsor Framework back in February. It was intended to be a 100-strong Brexit rebellion of yore, forcing the prime minister to rely on opposition votes to carry his resolution to the Northern Ireland Protocol. Truss and Johnson tried their utmost to corral an awkward squad of anti-Sunak activists — enlisting the support of such dedicated rebels as Jake Berry and Simon Clarke among others. But, in the end, only 22 MPs broke rank from the new steamrollering, Sunakian consensus.

Tellingly, both Johnson and Truss have been relatively quiet since February. Of course, Johnson may soon have a by-election on his hands, while Truss has taken the core tenets of her tax-cutting dream stateside. Still, their silence can be seen as an indication of how rapidly their political capital has depleted.

It has been noted that the PM’s political prestige has risen in inverse proportion to that of Johnson and Truss’. But the same could be said of Theresa May. 

Since her defenestration at the hands of the Conservative party in 2019, she has kept a lowish profile. She’s always been there; visible on the third row of commons benches over the PM’s right shoulder at most prime minister’s questions. But her interventions have been scarce and largely supportive. It means when the former PM does take a stand in the commons, it feels earned and politically potent.

There is also a sense that May is slowly becoming bolder in her reprieves. Reacting to the Sue Gray report in January 2022, the former PM memorably castigated her predecessor. “Either my right honourable friend had not read the rules, or did not understand what they meant — and others around him — or they did not think the rules applied to No. 10. Which was it?”, she asked. 

Her criticism of the Rwanda policy in April 2022 was similarly brutal, rubbishing the strategy “on the grounds of legality, practicality and efficacy”.

As a former home secretary — and far from a soft-touch one at that — May’s interventions on immigration are naturally more meaningful and more informed than those of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, who are both former foreign secretaries. 

And with Sunak’s pledge to “stop the boats” by far the most salient of his “five priorities”, May’s speech on Wednesday was immediately furnished with political meaning. Her focus on safe and legal routes for asylum seekers and objections to the illegal migration bill because of its implications for modern slavery are highly sensitive. 

It’s worth saying too that May’s pronouncements are significant because of the meaning they give to the ideological transformation of the Conservative party in recent years.

The amping up of rhetoric on “small boats” — seen in Braverman and Jenrick’s recent comments — has been a long-term process that has notably sped up in recent months. May’s intervention shows tangibly how far the Overton window of “acceptable” language and policy on illegal migration has shifted since she was prime minister.

So when the illegal migration bill is inevitably returned to the commons from the House of Lords in the coming months, how May’s stance evolves should be taken seriously indeed. 

She may not have the rabble-rousing power of some of her ex-PM counterparts, or a group of acolytes willing to march for her cause, but her emergence as a voice of conscience within Conservative party may cause trouble for Sunak nonetheless.