Rishi Sunak thought highlighting his efforts to stop the flow of migrants into Britain would rouse the government Conservative Party base and reinforce his political pitch around effective leadership. Instead, the prime minister has left voters unconvinced and both sides of his party unsatisfied.
(Bloomberg) — Rishi Sunak thought highlighting his efforts to stop the flow of migrants into Britain would rouse the government Conservative Party base and reinforce his political pitch around effective leadership. Instead, the prime minister has left voters unconvinced and both sides of his party unsatisfied.
A YouGov poll this week found fewer than one in 10 voters believe he will keep his promise to “stop the boats” carrying asylum seekers across the English Channel. That pledge — one of five Sunak told Britons to judge him by — risks turning into a political trap ahead of an election expected in 2024.
As Sunak holidayed in California, his team was left to handle a week of announcements meant to demonstrate a tough line on migration. It started with moving some migrants onto a barge moored off the southern coast, a move ministers say both reduces accommodation costs and acts as a deterrent.
Yet the communications strategy went badly off course. Headlines focused on an expletive by the Tory deputy party chairman directed at asylum seekers. Then came data showing 100,000 people have crossed the Channel since 2018. Even the barge opening backfired — it was evacuated on Friday after bacteria was found in its water supply.
Sunak’s pledge is based on the view that voters want stronger border controls after Brexit, and an attempt to portray the poll-leading Labour Party as weak in that area. But according to current and former Conservative politicians who spoke to Bloomberg News, Sunak’s immigration strategy isn’t working.
Conservatives are now debating what Sunak should try next. There’s a renewed push from the party’s right flank to leave the European Convention on Human Rights, arguing that doing so would make it easier to deliver on Sunak’s other core policy to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda.
Several Cabinet ministers including Home Secretary Suella Braverman would support that, people familiar with their thinking said. She has repeatedly said the ECHR undermines British democracy, while other influential Tories such as David Frost have been explicit in their demands.
A pivotal moment may come when the Supreme Court decides whether the Rwanda deportation program is unlawful. The case is due to be heard in early October with a judgment expected in late November or early December, a person familiar with the matter said. Sunak expects to win, but his next step if he loses is the great unknown, one government official said.
In that scenario, Sunak would use the election to campaign to leave the ECHR, according to three government aides who spoke on condition of anonymity. One said Sunak could say he was looking to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with aspects of it rather than leave outright, to ward off criticism. Another compared the ECHR to Brexit, suggesting it could upset the polls.
“If the court case fails, they will need to look at that option,” said James Johnson, a former aide to ex-premier Theresa May and co-founder of pollster JL Partners. “It will effectively become the only way to show they can stop the boats.”
The ramifications could be profound, and put the UK on a collision course with European nations and the US. An immediate issue is that the ECHR is written into the Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland in 1998. Brexit’s impact on the region has already caused tension between the British government and President Joe Biden’s administration.
Sunak acknowledged the sensitivity of the issue in relation to Northern Ireland, telling the House of Commons in February that the UK would remain a member.
People familiar with the thinking of three Cabinet ministers said they couldn’t support leaving the ECHR. One said it would cause an unprecedented breakdown in UK-US relations that would put Britain’s place in the Five Eyes security alliance — which also includes Canada, Australia and New Zealand — in doubt.
Commitment to the ECHR and its protocols is also a provision in part of the post-Brexit trade deal between the UK and the European Union.
“I imagine Sunak would be pretty uncomfortable with it,” former Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond said when asked about the Tory pressure to leave the ECHR. “I can see a group of old Brexiteers on the right offering it up as a new ‘identity issue’ that could shift the dial at the election. Personally, I doubt it. Even ideologues have to eat, or at least feed their children.”
Craig Oliver, who was former Prime Minister David Cameron’s communications director, said the international community would take it as “further evidence the UK has taken leave of its senses.” He also predicted that since Brexit didn’t work out as promised, many voters would “worry it was another ill-thought out scheme that could blow up in our faces.”
One former Cabinet minister described the idea as a fantasy. Another said they thought Sunak would be considering his future career outside politics, perhaps in the US, and that a toxic election campaign would harm those prospects.
Luke Tryl, a former Conservative adviser who runs the More In Common consultancy, said the ECHR “almost never” comes up in focus groups, and that campaigning to leave it risked putting off centrist voters.
The wildcard, though, is how Sunak responds if the Supreme Court rules against him, and he faces an election campaign having failed to deliver on a core pledge. Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick made clear this week the government wasn’t focused on trying to process the backlog of asylum claims, arguing that doing so would encourage more people to come. The evidence is that the government wants to go to the polls with deportations in full swing.
Ahead of an election, Sunak will face more pressure from the political right to take a harder line. As former Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage put it: “What will Sunak’s main priority be? To try and be popular with the international community, or try to salvage the election? This is the choice that he will face.”
That kind of analysis led one Tory strategist to conclude Sunak’s vow to stop the boats and give the issue such prominence was political suicide.
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