Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

Week-in-Review: Rwanda ruling sums up Rishi Sunak’s problem of passivity

When Rishi Sunak took over as prime minister in October last year, his immediate problems were associated with his dire inheritance. Be it the mini-budget mortgage premium, the legacy of Boris Johnson’s lax standards regime or Britain’s overheated economy — the PM knew he risked being defined on terms far beyond his control. But Sunak was certain: he did not want to be a passive prime minister.

In January, therefore, the PM moved quickly to signal a definite break with the past. Penning five ruthlessly pragmatic pledges for government, our technocrat-in-chief set out his own uniquely Sunakian stall: core promises informed by fresh, soon-to-be-announced policies.

But amid all the political repositioning and Sunak’s rhetoric of renewal, there was one obvious anomaly: the Rwanda deportations plan. 

When the negotiations on the Rwanda plan were completed in Spring 2022, it was Priti Patel — home secretary under Boris Johnson — who jet-setted to Kigali to sign the new asylum accord. A year later and Patel languishes in the Conservative party wilderness; Johnson has fared even worse, he now scribbles a weekly column for the Daily Mail in his self-imposed exile. Still, Sunak believes their deportations policy is his generous inheritance.

Arguably, the political rationale behind the Rwanda scheme operates no matter who the revolving door of Conservative governance has swivelled into No 10. For at the plan’s core is a tried and tested strategy: the scheme works — not necessarily by working — but by signalling it is the Conservative party, and the Conservative Party alone, that is willing to take the radical steps required to “stop the boats”. The scheme is deliberately controversial, and the political furore that has flowed from it was expected and desired.

Indeed, the outrage surrounding the Rwanda plan — in the minds of its architects at least — serves to vindicate their chosen approach. For the purest practitioners of the “stop the small boats” creed, the more opponents howl, the more virtuous the quest must be. From the ECHR’s eleventh-hour interim measure in June 2022 which grounded a Rwanda-bound plane — to the appeals court decision on Thursday, objections serve only to harden ministerial resolve. “All the wrong people will celebrate”, Suella Braverman told the House of Commons Thursday. The court’s dissent was hence hardening our home secretary’s intent: in turn, she blasted “phoney humanitarianism” for turning the English Channel into a “graveyard”.

But political rhetoric and legal reality need not move in turn — and the home secretary’s hardened approach nonetheless disguises a deeply difficult position for the government.

Indeed, the ruling essentially underlines that there is no chance — even assuming that the Rwanda policy could work — that the government will “stop the boats” by the end of this year. Failure on the government’s own terms, any forthcoming spin aside, seems more and more guaranteed. It is a dangerous state of affairs for a leader who has made so much of his problem-solving ability.

Expectedly, Labour has seized on the government’s legal logjam and was on the attack this week. The party argues the Rwanda plan is a microcosmic illustration of perceived Conservative incompetence. It shows just how far the deportation scheme has come since its humble beginnings as means to signal the government’s authoritarian convictions. Where once the plan looked set to force Starmer into a debate about the specificities of migration policy, the Labour leader now merely points to the government’s botched attempts to deliver their flagship plan and cries “chaos”. 

Such was the nature of shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper’s performance this week. The court’s judgement showed Rishi Sunak has no plan to end “the Tories’ small boats chaos”, she railed on Thursday. It followed her blistering attack on Tuesday as part of an Urgent Question on the government’s impact assessment of the illegal migration bill — an assessment that calculated the Rwanda scheme will cost an estimated £169,000 per individual. “The PM who claims to be Mr Fix It, is instead Mr Muck It Up”, Cooper boomed.

It is a stinging criticism which locates the central paradox of this present phase of Sunakian rule. For the PM claims to be acting authoritatively on his pledges, exacting crucial wins through dogged graft. But, on small boats — the most politically sensitive of the government’s pledges — Sunak cannot even prove the legality of his flagship policy. 

In short, Starmer does not need to be principled on small boats as long as the government continues to fail on its own terms.

Ultimately, the PM’s pledges, and therefore his core pre-election offering, have never looked more fragile. Indeed, although YouGov polling shows the electorate is split on the desirability of the Rwanda scheme, with 42 per cent in favour of the policy and 37 per cent opposed — a full 56 per cent of those surveyed think it unlikely that migrants will ever be deported to the African nation under this government. And this particular YouGov finding came before Thursday’s ruling. In light of the appeals court decision, one imagines that if the poll was repeated today, that 56 per cent figure would be much higher.

So on its small boats policy, the government looks set to let down both liberal-minded voters who slight the Rwanda policy as cruel — as well as supposed supporters, individuals with authoritarian instincts, who increasingly sense incompetence on illegal migration. 

In this way, Conservative MP Mark Francois — someone who would typify the latter of these categories — had the most interesting question following Braverman’s statement to the commons on Thursday. It also prompted the most revealing reply. 

Francois scolded Braverman: “It could now take months for the case to reach the Supreme Court, let alone for a judgment to be handed down. In the meantime, the boats will keep coming, now probably all summer”.

He asked, moreover, if anything could be done to “expedite the Supreme Court’s decision in this case”, and added “the only way we will ultimately solve this problem is to achieve a derogation from the ECHR”.

Braverman could only respond that “The court sets the timetables and we will follow any timeline they set”. 

The home secretary’s reply may be true, but it unflatteringly sums up the government’s positioning on immigration policy. Ministers are at the mercy of events, the agenda is being driven by external actors and there is no guarantee of success — either in the short or long term.

Of course, in order to pick up some elusive momentum, one option open to the PM is to radicalise his offering on small boats in a bid to keep up with his home secretary’s hardening rhetoric and the tyranny of expectations created by the repeated pronouncements on illegal migration. But with justice secretary Alex Chalk having announced on Tuesday that the government was abandoning Dominic Raab’s “British Bill of Rights” — which was an attempt to curtail the ECHR’s powers — it seems increasingly unlikely. 

On the Rwanda policy, therefore, Sunak waits passively for a date in court, unable to act decisively on his most politically sensitive pre-election pledge.

In fact, right now, this seems the central theme of his premiership. As rates rise, as inflation remains stubbornly high, as Johnson allies manoeuvre and as small boats continue to make the perilous journey across the Channel, our PM seems destined to play his role as a permanent spectator.

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