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19 December 2023

How Rwanda ruined Rishi Sunak’s year

At today’s Liaison Committee session, the Prime Minister’s “tetchiness” was on display.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Given the choice, Rishi Sunak would probably have elected to skip today’s Liaison Committee session. It has been a harrowing few months for the Prime Minister, and ending the parliamentary year with a grilling from hostile select committee chairs was never going to be on his Christmas wishlist.

The aim for prime ministers during such sessions is essentially to not make news. Don’t reveal anything you don’t want to reveal, don’t get caught in any traps, and don’t lose your cool at your fellow MPs. While the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions is a sparring match – where points are won with jokes and attack lines, and style can be used to outweigh substance – the Liaison Committee requires meticulous prepping and calmer tones. It should be an easier gig for a certain kind of technocratic politician who seems to really enjoy doing his homework.

But Sunak has shown he does not much like having to answer questions when he feels under pressure; he has a reputation for “tetchiness” and for interrupting or talking over those who challenge him (a trait that is particularly noticeable with women). And with many of his own MPs still feeling aggravated after the sacking of Suella Braverman, the subsequent reshuffle and the ongoing row over the scheme to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, this wasn’t exactly an easy crowd.

In fact, it was a fellow Conservative, Alicia Kearns, who first seemed to raise Sunak’s tetchiness levels, interrogating the Prime Minister on whether he was prepared to take a tougher line on the actions of the Israel Defence Forces in Gaza. When she asked where responsibility lay for the fact that so many Palestinian civilians were dying, Sunak called the line of questioning “extraordinary”. Kearns, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, is always forthright on foreign policy but isn’t usually a major troublemaker for Sunak. The exchange appeared to catch him off guard.

Maybe that’s where his mind remained when Diana Johnson, Labour MP and chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, began quizzing him about the Rwanda plan. Surely, one would think, the Prime Minister would have come prepared for questions on the topic that he has staked his entire leadership on. Surely he would be able to answer the inevitable questions over whether there would even be any planes, after it was reported last weekend that airlines are refusing to sign contracts with the Home Office, fearing reputational damage.

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Alas, he did not, offering only the excuse of not wanting to comment on “private commercial negotiations”. He was similarly cagey on the cost of the Rwanda plan – estimated to have hit £290m already, before a single deportation has taken place – and on when he planned to achieve his promise to “stop the boats”.

This was an interesting moment. When Sunak gave his “five priorities” speech to the nation on 4 January, what he actually promised was to “pass new laws to stop small boats, making sure that if you come to this country illegally, you are detained and swiftly removed”. This was further truncated to “stop the boats” – but the two things are rather different. One promises action, the other promises results.

Watch: The New Statesman podcast analyses the PMs new approach to immigration, and where it leaves him for 2024.

Sunak could argue that he has already fulfilled what he said he would do: the Illegal Migration Act, which gives the government new powers to remove people who come to the UK illegally, became law in July (“pass new laws”). He could also point to the progress made by working closely with European countries to target trafficking gangs and agreeing a deal with Albania to return Albanian nationals to their home country (“swiftly removed”).

Instead, the Prime Minister has allowed the shortened version of his promise – stop the boats – to become the headline, and the main yardstick by which he is inviting the country to view his record. This is an impossible ambition (there is no policy that could reduce illegal Channel crossings to zero in a single year), but the expectation has become so embedded that when Diana Johnson asked Sunak when it would happen, he could only feebly say that there was no “firm date”. This obvious weakness – appearing to have promised something that has not been achieved – is why Sunak has invested so much in the Rwanda scheme (just one tiny part of the overall illegal immigration strategy), regardless of how many legal, political, and logistical obstacles it faces.

The rest of the session remained just on the right side of not committing news. Sunak was questioned on net zero, inequality and the cost-of-living crisis. There were no big revelations, and while he looked visibly irritated at moments, no explosions. But the back and forth over Rwanda is a microcosm of Sunak’s year. In allowing it to be oversold, the PM finds himself unable to escape unrealistic expectations. The news line becomes the fact he has no deadline for Rwanda flights taking off, not the progress that has been made in other areas. When the unworkability of the plan is highlighted, he has no choice but to double down further. This strategy is not working for the Tories. New polling out today by YouGov finds the Tories have hit record lows when it comes to public opinion on asylum and immigration. Just 14 per cent of voters trust the party on the issue it has spent all year talking about, compared with 23 per cent for Labour.

With the Rwanda bill back before MPs soon and Conservatives from both the left and the right of the party keen to ensure it meets their criteria, Sunak faces a tough fight in the new year.

[See also: Nigel Farage is one to watch in 2024]

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