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A small boats election is Rishi Sunak’s best chance

Rishi Sunak speaking in Downing Street this morning.

December 7, 2023 - 1:20pm

Tetchy. Stressed. A little bit desperate. Rishi Sunak was all of these things in this morning’s hastily-convened press conference in Downing Street. But at least there was a spark, a sense of purpose — and, importantly, a flash of determination and authenticity. At the moment, that’s just about all he has to cling on to.

Sunak finds himself in the worst polling position a year out from a general election since John Major in 1991. This should be no surprise. Living standards have never before been so squeezed for so long, taxes so high for so little, the sense of elemental Government failure so profound. The Government’s total inability to control immigration — legal and illegal — only compounds the problem.

For a moment before I saw the lectern in Number 10 today plastered with a sign reading “Stop the Boats”, I wondered whether Sunak might use the press conference to throw in the towel, calling a snap election on his Rwanda plan and choosing self-immolation over the slow painful death seemingly coming his way. But no: he was pressing on, he confirmed, apparently convinced he can still turn this around.

When Boris Johnson became prime minister in July 2019, he used the power of the office to set the terms of the next election. Faced with a parliamentary roadblock to Brexit, he chose a strategy of maximum carnage, repeatedly driving headfirst into the constitution until he either smashed through it or received the credit for trying. The more Johnson was blocked, the more pressing the crisis became — and with it the attraction of getting Brexit done. Had he come into power and immediately called an election on the same platform, the message might not have been quite so powerful.

One danger for Labour is that Sunak now follows a similar playbook, relentlessly pushing the bounds of legality and constitutional probity to stop the boats. Under the plan, the Prime Minister can use all the roadblocks thrown in his way to his advantage until eventually declaring the need to leave the European Convention on Human Rights. By this point, the small boats issue may have become the dominant political crisis for voters, the blockage stopping all else. Having done everything possible to stop the boats without leaving the ECHR, calling for a mandate to do so might look less radical and more reasonable — a solution to a problem and not a problem requiring solutions of its own, which of course it will be.

The public might blame the crisis on the Government and decide Labour cannot do any worse. They might continue to care more about their falling living standards than illegal migration. Or they might simply conclude that leaving the ECHR after leaving the EU is a bridge too far. Keir Starmer has ruled out such a departure and opposes the very principle of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda. On every other issue Labour has closed down potential lines of attack: from taxes to fiscal responsibility, defence and even Brexit itself. But on the issue of illegal immigration, there is — ironically — clear blue water. This is surely where the Tories will try to at least claw back some support lost to Labour (and Reform UK).

There are three fundamental problems with this strategy. One is public exhaustion. There are only so many times a government can use a crisis to its own advantage before the public decides that the government is responsible for causing it in the first place. The second is that the party seems too divided on the issue to fight a successful election campaign around it. Johnson had to purge a whole wing of the Tory party to be able to fight a Get Brexit done campaign. The third problem is Sunak himself: is he really capable of fighting such a campaign?

Today’s press conference showed the kind of fluent determination that he will need to do so. To stand any chance of success he will, in effect, have to campaign through government, just as Johnson did for the first six months of his premiership. He will need to drop the autocue and lean into the kind of Sunakisms with which he peppered his speech:  “My patience has worn thin”; “It is patently unfair”; “It’s ridiculous what’s going on”. He has to prove he is prepared to try everything, that he is different, that he really believes what he’s saying. It’s a high-risk strategy, but — politically speaking — at least it’s something. Right now, he’s not go much else going for him.


is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.

TomMcTague

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Albireo Double
Albireo Double
4 months ago

I think there are important fourth and fifth items to be added to your list of the three problems facing Sunak with this strategy. Item 4 is that Sunak has indeed created this problem himself (I think we could all agree that this is really quite an important point). Item 5 is that Sunak has absolutely no wish or intention to reduce inward migration into this country. (Yet another rather fundamental point – No?)

We know this, because Sunak has told us this, many times. He is laser focused on increasing growth. And he believes that the only route to increasing growth is to increase and sustain high migration into our country. To repeat, This is no scoop. Sunak himself has told us this, over and over and over again.

Given all of that, I think it is really rather ridiculous to argue that Sunak is likely to fight an election on this subject, Or that Sunak could ever win an election on this subject. I think Mr Sunak is simply marking time until the end of his term so that he can tick the UK PM box on his CV and carry on up the ladder of entitlement to the WEF / Davos gilded class.

One doesn’t like to shock too much. So I will say it gently. I don’t believe that our neat little Prime Minister cares one “jot or tittle” about this country or its people. We are merely a rather slimy and unpleasant stepping-stone on his path to his idea of greatness.

Last edited 4 months ago by Albireo Double
D Glover
DG
D Glover
4 months ago
Reply to  Albireo Double

I agree.

The Government’s total inability to control immigration — legal and illegal — only compounds the problem.

Only the second half of that is true; the inability to control illegal immigration.
Legal immigration depends on the issuing of visas. This government has deliberately issued them to Indian, Chinese and Nigerian people in far greater numbers than ever before. When we were in the EU the East Europeans were able to come here without visas, now three times as many migrants come from outside the EU with visas.
This is deliberate.

Albireo Double
AD
Albireo Double
4 months ago
Reply to  D Glover

Of course it’s deliberate.
And frankly, so is the illegal situation. We have every means that we need at our disposal to stop them. But for a long time, it was a very useful distraction to the legal migration, and it still is. A lot of people still don’t know the real number that are pouring in. You ask, and they’ll either answer that they don’t know, or they’ll give you the “net” figure – yet another government distraction.
1,200,000. (One million, two hundred thousand) – in one year. That’s the number. It should be engraved on all of our hearts. That’s an average of 3,287 new arrivals needing housing, health and welfare.
3,287 Every. Single. Day. Of. The. Year.

Last edited 4 months ago by Albireo Double
Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
4 months ago
Reply to  Albireo Double

Why is the net figure just a distraction? People leave the country every day aswell, which lessens the strain on the country’s resources. It’s the net figure which tells you how many more people are competing for the available resources – and that’s what bothers you, right?

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
4 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

That’s I’m getting downvotes and no response for simply asking a question and pointing out something that is merely common sense shows that this discussion has left the realm of rationality.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
4 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Agree you should not be down voted for your observation but it is unlikely to be the single mothers and net benefit recipients that are leaving the UK whereas many of the inflow will become net beneficiaries of taxpayer largess so it is worth concentrating on the total inflow rather than the net figure and the effect on community cohesion is affected by this population exchange.

That said a proper analysis of the profile of the population exchange is overdue so that discussion is based on fact rather than fears.

Chipoko
Chipoko
4 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Good response.

D Glover
DG
D Glover
4 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Katherine, what you have written only makes sense if you think that all the people in the world are interchangeable units of economic consumption. Is that what you think? If 10 million Brits emigrated and the same number of Chinese immigrated that would be a net zero change. So would that mean that the country hadn’t changed at all?

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
4 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Unfortunately, this behaviour is increasing. People know they are right, so why should they bother to argue about it. You are correct-ish when you say that the net figure drives resources – but only if every person is identical. Probably, those going out are brighter, younger, brainier, more self-sufficient? I don’t know and probably no-one else here knows.
However, the point was, I think, that the use of a net figure might be a tool to disguise things. Not sure how.

Albireo Double
AD
Albireo Double
4 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Available resources bother me. But so do other things, one of them being enforced cultural change. Another being the subjugation and abuse of women. A third being terrorism.

Chipoko
Chipoko
4 months ago
Reply to  Albireo Double

“Mr Sunak is simply marking time until the end of his term so that he can tick the UK PM box on his CV and carry on up the ladder of entitlement to the WEF / Davos gilded class.”
Bullseye!
The Tory Party is replete with filthy rich, privileged playboys and playgirls, whose wealth shields them from the consequences of their actions and inactions. The horrendous Woke revolution, including the uncontrolled imposition of vast numbers of migrants ( legal and illegal) on the British population, has thrived and expanded exponentially under their disastrous 13 years in government, during which time they’ve wrecked public services (e.g. 30,000 police personnel slashed from force establishments). UK has begun to resemble a Third World country under their leadership.
These cynics are playing the Political Game, primarily concerned about their places in the post-modernist history books of tomorrow, strutting the global stage and not bothered about national boundaries or other bigoted concepts. However much people may have hated Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (you might have thought the feminists would have cheered about that achievement!), she was a conviction politician who genuinely loved her country, fought for its interests first and foremost, who had a clear moral compass and with whom you knew where you stood. She is utterly unlike the slimy bunch of slithering snakes in the Tory Part of today who specialise in shafting the electorate and each other. They are matched only by the ruthless reptiles flicking their forked tongues in the Labour Party as it sniffs electoral prey in 2024.

Iris C
IC
Iris C
4 months ago
Reply to  Albireo Double

What a nasty letter, steeped in prejudice!
Rishi Sunak could be one of our great PMs.
He set out to – AND SUCCEEDED IN – (1) reducing inflation – a scourge which reduces everyone’s buying power. (This involved taking-on the Public Service unions which had never been successful in the past); (2) limiting legal immigration with comprehensive legislation, which puts a strain on public services affecting us all; and (3) found a way to stop illegal immigration with the threat of being sent to Ruanda for processing. The latter two were promised in the 2019 election and were not carried out during Boris Johnson’s tenure.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
4 months ago
Reply to  Iris C

Is this post a,joke?

D Glover
D Glover
4 months ago
Reply to  Anna Bramwell

It’s called satire.

Arkadian Arkadian
AA
Arkadian Arkadian
4 months ago

Well, yes… perhaps.
On the other hand, has he ever shown any interest or conviction on this matter?
Braverman was right all along, and now all agree on that, but was sacked.

Last edited 4 months ago by Arkadian Arkadian
Simon Denis
SD
Simon Denis
4 months ago

True. If he’d wanted to stake out migration as a battle ground he should have done so the moment he took office. Now he’ll look like an incompetent opportunistic fake. Second, there are the rank upon rank of witless, gutless, prattling members of the Tory left in parliament – yes you, Damian Green – happier to strike “moral” attitudes than confront the unsustainable truth. On the other hand, it remains an iron law of British politics that Labour is worse. If the Tories go Liberal, the reds go crimson. And now that the Tories are social democrats the reds are positively communist – bursting with Corbynite malice. So we’re trapped. The proper function of democracy has been snarled up – deliberately? At any rate the public cannot find honest representatives of its actual views. All we can do is put our vote next to the least despicable candidate. The choice in my constituency is almost delectably unappetising.

Arkadian Arkadian
AA
Arkadian Arkadian
4 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

Impossible to disagree.
Here my choice is snp or labour…

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
4 months ago

Such unwelcome echoes of the Brexit Agony!!. The same creepy realisation that democratic governance in the UK is but a fantasy. We see again that a New Progressive Order buttressed by the State, a majority of venal unprincipled politicians in Labour and Wet Tory Party, and weaponised by the suffocating legacy of outdated dud 50s refugees laws and twisted human rights laws both here and in far off lands RULE. Any attempt to challenge the insane legal barriers to state control of our borders is set upon by these Establishment wolves. And it looks like they will win this round and sink Rishi. De rien. What the ruling progressives fail to appreciate is that their utterly cynical and open subversion of the popular will on mass migration – atop of their monstrous socio economic failures in our welfare housing energy food & education markets will surely now lead to a Reckoning – within a decade or so. By then the proto civil war in France and more Wilders & Georgia election victories for the far right will have forced the West and EU to act against laws validating criminal and uncontrolled illegal border crossings. Those smirking at Rishi’s impotence and the likely triumph of the People Smuggler Mafia/Progressive Legal Alliance should be careful what they wish for.

Matt M
MM
Matt M
4 months ago

The areas where conservatives (though not necessarily the Tory Party) and the other parties disagree: immigration, net zero, ULEZ, “trans issues”, “de-colonisation” and “reparations”, crime and punishment.

Anna Bramwell
AB
Anna Bramwell
4 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

They all agree with each other.

54321
2
54321
4 months ago

Sunak finds himself in the worst polling position a year out from a general election since John Major in 1991.

John Major’s polling before the 1992 election was never this bad. Not even close.
From taking over as PM in 1990 to the election, Major’s worst polling deficit to Labour was 10% and, allowing for margin of error, he essentially went into the election on parity in most polls.
Since taking over as PM, Sunak has never had a deficit of less than double-digits in a recognised national opinion poll and it has frequently been in the mid-20s.
Short of single-handedly disarming Thanos of the Infinity Gauntlet, there is nothing Sunak can do about this. The Conservatives’ shambolic unpopularity is now baked into the voting intentions of too much of the electorate for the next election and probably the one after that too.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
4 months ago
Reply to  54321

Very poor research by the author.

However… much can happen during the next Labour administration, and all bets are off from the next GE onwards.

54321
2
54321
4 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Well it’s true a lot can happen between elections.

The problem for the the Conservatives is that one thing which definitely will happen is their core support will continue to age and die. Their vote has collapsed among young people. Just 19% of 18-24 year olds and 27% of 25-34 year olds voted for them in 2019, an election they won by a virtual landslide. In 1997, an election they lost by a tsunami, those numbers were 27% and 28%.

In the past they could count on a large proportion of those young voters becoming more conservative over time as they bought houses and advanced through their careers and life-stages. Not any more with so many shut out of home ownership and locked into the gig economy.

I’m not writing them off longer-term because they’ve shown such amazing powers of re-invention in the past. But they are definitely at a moment of existential risk.

j watson
JW
j watson
4 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Labour certainly going to get the proverbial ‘hospital pass’ and it’ll be a v difficult administration (if they win).
Tories though might rip themselves apart in Opposition, split their own voting base, and continue the chaos. That’d make a future GE v interesting

John Tyler
JT
John Tyler
4 months ago

“ Living standards have never before been so squeezed for so long”

You are kidding aren’t you?

Steve Murray
LL
Steve Murray
4 months ago
Reply to  John Tyler

The lack of historical perspective is breathtaking.

That statement is on a par with “the world is warming at an.umprecedented rate” which appears unchallenged every week on the BBC news website.

Andrew Wise
AW
Andrew Wise
4 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

The world is literally on fire

Anna Bramwell
AB
Anna Bramwell
4 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Wise

Then it rained very hard, whoops.

Amelia Melkinthorpe
AM
Amelia Melkinthorpe
4 months ago

Looking at this – https://youtu.be/Un9QB48kNfc?si=0Sqw3hvvWlYV3j6O
God help us all.

Albireo Double
Albireo Double
4 months ago



Louise Henson
Louise Henson
4 months ago

I agree that fighting an election on immigration is the Conservatives’ only chance of winning. But not with Sunak as leader. People don’t believe him any more. Braverman and now Jenrick have ruthlessly exposed his Achilles’ heel. He has already had the chance to ‘stop the boats’ and he flunked it. Probably because he doesn’t really want to succeed, or at least care enough to be willing to do what is necessary.
And anyway. he’s run out of time. He just can’t get away with yet another ‘oh dear, that didn’t work either, we’ll have to try something else’; which is what the author is suggesting..