Rishi Sunak has had a productive week this week. What is impressive is that despite the Matt Hancock WhatsApp leaks, the hangover of Starmer’s decision to elevate Sue Grey to his Chief of Staff, intense fighting in Ukraine, and an ongoing SNP leadership contest, the Prime Minister has still managed substantial cut-through on his small boats policy announcement.
This week Prime Minister Sunak announced his small boats plan, in an effort to curb the current influx of asylum seekers being trafficked across the channel to UK shores. This plan will be codified as the Illegal Migration Bill, being tabled by the Home Secretary. The Bill states broadly that anyone found to have entered the country illegally would not only be removed from the UK within 28 days, but also be blocked from returning or claiming British citizenship in future. Those who arrive in small boats would either be returned to their home country, or another "safe third country" like Rwanda.
The issue caused a right old ding-dong at PMQs between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer. This PMQs came off the back of a successful Northern Ireland deal announced by the PM, as well as the small boats announcement too - so the Conservative frontbenches should only look to have wind in their sails. This however was not the case. Both the NI deal and the small boats announcement were heavy on policy substance, which played fairly well into Keir Starmer’s hands. The Leader of the Opposition’s laser-like focus on detail, which usually is reason for criticism, made the Prime Minister look somewhat under-briefed on his flagship small boats policy at this week’s PMQs, particularly when faced with questions over returns agreements.
As the new announcement played-out in the public discourse, it was obvious that the small boats issue remains a ‘wedge issue’ for many of the UK’s voters. Proponent MPs praised the Prime Minister for his action over words, tackling an issue that has plagued numerous administrations since Gordon Brown. Opponents to the policy claimed that it will not work in practice, and that passing the law will end international human rights law, but more crucially impact a successful modern slavery programme that currently exists in the UK. Despite some ripples being made by the Home Secretary, who in an email to Conservative Party members drew criticism for blaming the civil service for the UK’s inaction on the issue of small boats, the comms around the announcement remained fairly slick.
The Bill is expected to fly through the House of Commons, with many of the Opposition parties, including Labour, opposing it but not affecting the Conservative Party’s 80 seat majority. Where the Government will face difficult hurdles is in the House of Lords. The House of Lords is mostly populated by cross-bench peers that will take a forensic approach to legislating the contents of the Bill, ensuring that its provisions are compliant with the ECHR and Modern Slavery requirements. Some political commentators have noted that any intervention from the ECHR would delight hardline Tories to push for withdrawal from the Convention, and the Small Boats drama might provide the perfect 'cover' with their voting base.
Of course, there are political motivations behind such an aggressive approach by the UK Government. For months, the Conservatives have been seen to be stuck in neutral and stumbling from scandal to scandal. Is this the moment where the Prime Minister takes the issues that the country is facing by the horns? It is no secret that Rishi Sunak’s profile among red wall voters remains to be established. The red wall, which voted overwhelmingly for Brexit and for Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party in 2019, heavily favours controlled borders and restricted immigration. Given that the Conservative Party is now, after a slew of scandals and failed leadership bids, looking at a 20 point polling deficit nationally, and a 20 point deficit in the red wall itself, this was Rishi Sunak’s ‘Hail Mary’ moment to win over those red wall voters dismayed at the abrupt removal of Boris Johnson.
And speaking of… Chuntering in the background of all the news this week hides one Boris Johnson, about whom there are rumours of a seat-change from his current marginal seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, to a far safer blue wall seat. Such a decision will ultimately lie with CCHQ and the Prime Minister, who will need to decide whether the former PM is worthy of such gratification by the Party establishment.