New Times,
New Thinking.

“Stop the boats” is a delusion

Rishi Sunak has only just realised what we always knew.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Rishi Sunak is not going to “stop the boats” before the next election. The Prime Minister said on 21 August that, while the number of crossings has slightly fallen this year, preventing people from making the dangerous journey across the Channel was a “complex” problem that “can’t be solved overnight”.

It’s a significant – if inevitable – admission. No one could hope to resolve the crisis in the Channel (around 46,000 people made small-boat crossings in 2022, compared with just 300 in 2018) in the space of a couple of years. The challenge is so great, so sprawling, so politically thorny in both domestic and foreign policy terms, that one wonders why Sunak ever made it one of his five top priorities for 2023. Why highlight a problem you can’t fix?

Half the answer is that the promise was mangled into something unachievable. In a January speech, Sunak pledged to “pass new laws to stop small boats”, rather than stop them outright. “Stop the boats” was intended as a catchy slogan – something to hammer Labour with on election leaflets. Despite introducing the legislation he promised, Sunak is now being held to an altogether higher standard.

But it’s also about signalling. While Sunak’s other pledges concerned matters that have a serious impact on the everyday lives of Brits (inflation, NHS waiting lists, economic stability), the number of voters directly affected by the crossings is small and localised. It’s also politically divisive in a way that the others are not (who doesn’t want a better NHS and an end to the cost-of-living crisis?). The small-boats promise was intended to placate the Tory base – particularly those in parliament and the membership that doubted Sunak’s Brexit credentials and had not forgiven him for his role in ousting Boris Johnson.

This faction already had a champion in Sunak’s cabinet: Suella Braverman, who was reappointed Home Secretary just six days after being sacked from the same role by Liz Truss. Critics might call this weak leadership; the Prime Minister’s fans argue that it’s savvy party management. But Braverman was put there to placate the Tory right and show how serious Sunak was about cracking down on illegal immigration.

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Some also suspect the Prime Minister wanted to keep Braverman in post so he’d have a scapegoat ready for when taking control of immigration proved impossible. He was setting her up to fail knowing her popularity among the members would likely diminish the longer she had the job.

If that ever was the plan, it has backfired. Braverman surpassed all expectations in her zeal to make coming to Britain as unappealing as possible – with threats of deportation to Rwanda, tents purchased to house thousands in military-style camps, and a barge that might or might not host Legionella bacteria. No one can accuse the Home Secretary of being soft on illegal Channel crossings.

These efforts, however, come at a price. Private Eye pointed out that housing 500 refugees on the Bibby Stockholm barge for a year would be more expensive than sending them on a year-long Disney cruise. There have also been reports that a UN-backed scheme that improves outcomes and reduces costs by supporting asylum seekers in local communities has been abandoned by the Home Office. The suspicion is that this more humane strategy did not fit Braverman’s deterrent narrative, so was rejected – even though it could save taxpayers money. And while Robert Jenrick, the Immigration Minister, has been trying to forge alliances with countries along trafficking routes, Braverman’s reckless rhetoric about leaving the European Convention on Human Rights – a move that less than a quarter of British voters support – risks antagonising European allies. A draconian approach is making it harder to achieve real progress.

And there is a cost for Sunak. Moderate Tories in Blue Wall seats who consider themselves compassionate and decent do not want to be associated with someone who claims to “dream” of watching deportation flights take off to Rwanda, as Braverman has done. Meanwhile, voters who do want to get tough on illegal migration simply see incompetence. The issue gets a lot of media coverage, and when what was promised doesn’t materialise – whether blocked by the courts, frustrated by bacteria, or foiled by the sad reality that making Britain’s refugee process more hostile will not deter desperate people from trying to come here – the government cannot escape the blame.

The numbers that should really scare the Prime Minister can be found in a recent YouGov poll: 80 per cent of people who voted Tory in 2019 lack confidence that the government can “stop the boats”. The slogan only highlights Sunak’s failure – just as “Brexit means Brexit” was a millstone around Theresa May’s neck. The same poll also reveals Braverman has taken a personal hit: more Conservative voters think she is doing a bad job than support her.

If Braverman was meant to be a scapegoat, why is she still in post? Perhaps Sunak was spooked by her brazen manoeuvring for the leadership, or by the abrupt departures of Gavin Williamson and Dominic Raab. Or perhaps he genuinely believed ending small-boats migration was achievable. But now that has proved delusional, the Home Secretary is not a shield or an asset to the Prime Minister, but a liability. The longer she stays, the more damage will be done to the government’s credibility on illegal migration. If Sunak is not going to stop the boats, the best thing he can hope for is to stop Braverman.

[See also: The real cause of generational warfare]

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This article appears in the 23 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Britain’s Exclusive Sect