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.


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

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