British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has a major problem.
As his governing Conservative Party prepares to enter what will likely be an election year in 2024, it is languishing behind the opposition Labour Party in polls week after week.
The Conservatives have been in power since 2010, during which time they’ve gone through five prime ministers and virtually every possible iteration of conservatism imaginable. And after 13 years in power, it’s fair to say the party looks a little tired and out of ideas.
This is why Sunak is leaning into the Conservatives’ historical trump card issue: immigration.
Sunak, himself the son of immigrants, is currently throwing absolutely everything he has at trying to bring down the UK’s net migration numbers – which reached a record high of 745,000 in 2022.
That high number exists for various reasons: The UK has had generous policies to welcome people fleeing Ukraine and Hong Kong in recent years.
Since leaving the European Union, the UK is no longer part of the Dublin Regulation, an EU law that is designed to share the burden of hosting asylum seekers across the bloc by allowing member states to return migrants to the EU country they first entered – something the UK used effectively and benefited from.
The implications of this can be seen most clearly in the number of people now crossing the English Channel in small boats.
The boats are largely run by criminal trafficking gangs who help migrants illegally enter the UK in unsafe, crowded vessels that have on multiple occasions led to people drowning.
While these small boats are not the chief reason for the UK’s immigration numbers, they arguably have the highest profile.
In 2018 , the number of people detected crossing the English Channel in small boats was 299, according to Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford. In 2022, that number was 45,755.
Of course, 45,755 is a fraction of the 745,000 net immigration total. However, for the places that are most affected by these small boat landings, that enormous increase is very visible. For the people who live in areas where these migrants end up being housed while their asylum claims are processed, it is impossible not to notice the influx into local populations.
Politically, small boat crossings have become a touchstone issue for the next election – hence Sunak making stopping the boats one of his five key priorities at the start of this year.
He has inherited a controversial plan from his predecessors whereby the UK reached an agreement with Rwanda that refugees could be sent to that country instead of staying in the UK. To date, the UK has not sent a single person to Rwanda because courts have prevented them from doing so. Most notably, the European Court of Human Rights has blocked flights to Rwanda from taking off. In short, there are human rights concerns that people who are sent to Rwanda could still face oppression in Rwanda or be sent back to their country of origin.
Sunak this week unveiled a bill that was designed to block any legal reason that planes were not flying people to Rwanda. His immigration minister resigned hours later and it is possible that his government will lose a vote on the bill in parliament next week. Meanwhile it was revealed that the British government had paid the Rwandan government an additional £100m this year as part of the deal. It had already sent £140m to the country.
For a country that in 2016 voted to leave the European Union, a foreign court interfering with domestic law is something that creates political opportunities. Enter Nigel Farage.
Farage, one of the most high-profile Brexit campaigners, has been using his media profile and daily TV show to talk about small boats for a long time.
His tactic of attacking Sunak and the Conservatives from the right has over time forced some on the right of the Conservative Party to call for increasingly tough action on immigration. Some even think there is an argument for the UK leaving the ECHR. And with an election coming up, some are even wondering if promising some kind of referendum on the UK’s membership of the ECHR in the Conservative manifesto might be a way of keeping voters who are tempted to cast their ballots for smaller right-wing parties.
Indeed, Sunak’s recently-sacked home secretary said in a statement to parliament earlier this week: “The powers to detain and remove must be exercisable notwithstanding the Human Rights Act, the European Convention on Human Rights, the Refugee Convention, and all other international law … it is now or never. The Conservative Party faces electoral oblivion in a matter of months if we introduce yet another Bill destined to fail. Do we fight for sovereignty or let our party die?”
If this all sounds familiar, that’s because it’s all happened before. It was Farage’s Euroskeptic rabble-rousing that forced former Conservative leader David Cameron to put a Brexit vote in his party’s 2015 manifesto. Cameron won that election, but was forced to resign a year later after losing the referendum. Sunak can at least ask Cameron for advice, having recently made him the UK’s foreign secretary.
While Cameron has been publicly supportive of Sunak’s Rwanda plan and the bill introduced this week, it’s not hard to imagine him telling his boss that on Europe and immigration, the Conservatives simply cannot win.
The reality is that the bar set by Farage and some of his own MPs is so high that there is no way Sunak can clear it. Whatever he does, it will never be enough for the voters most-motivated by migration.
On the left – which in modern British politics can at times really mean center-right – Sunak risks looking cruel, kicking down at people who are fleeing war zones and trying to send them to a place where they are still not safe.
Sunak is desperate to flip the debate over to Labour, forcing them to take a position on immigration – but this issue is intensely toxic for Conservatives. There will always be people with the luxury of sitting outside of mainstream politics who can make noise.
And beside all of this, British attitudes to migration have evolved in the past few years – the idea of simply being strong on immigration winning votes for the Conservatives is not as true as it once was.
Some who saw it as a key issue now recognize that the health service benefited from migrant labor. Some feel post-Brexit that their concerns were addressed and that the country now has control over immigration. There are still people who care a lot about migration, of course, but the general direction of travel is that views are softening.
Given the difficult position he’s in, it’s no surprise that Sunak is looking for wedge issues ahead of the next election. But it might be that the PM has picked a fight he simply can’t win.