LONDON In two big political moments this week, Rishi Sunak was asked to pick a side and refused. His mixed messages may just keep him in business.
His flagship immigration policy of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda was dealt a heavy blow on Wednesday after the UK Supreme Court ruled it illegal.
Polls show immigration is a top concern among British voters, with Mr Sunak vowing to “stop the boats” crossing the English Channel illegally, a promise some suggested he is backtracking on after he sacked his stalwart home secretary Suela Braverman on Monday.
After the Supreme Court ruling, Sunak first made it clear that he would respect the ruling and focus his efforts on concluding a new agreement with Rwanda. It was immediately clear that this would not be enough to satisfy the right of his party, who wasted no time in calling for him to effectively ban the UK’s human rights framework, or even to ignore the court altogether.
The planes should still go ahead and take off, Conservative Party Vice President Lee Anderson told POLITICO.
But late that day, Sunak held a press conference where he announced emergency legislation to declare Rwanda safe and hinted at potential further action, declaring he would not allow “a foreign court to block our ability to take down these flights.”
The surprise move keeps Rwanda’s plan on life support and could save it from the threat of a revolt by restive right-wing lawmakers.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sunak would try everything he could to save the Rwanda agenda, a policy on which his famously divided party had reached a delicate consensus.
Earlier this week, the right cried betrayal after he fired incumbent Braverman and reinstated former prime minister David Cameron and a phalanx of other centrists in Monday’s reshuffle.
After his tougher speech in Rwanda on Wednesday, a large number of MPs appeared ready to give his Plan B a chance.
Former justice secretary Robert Buckland, a moderate, said it was positive that the government would now be free to revise the Rwanda plan without a major civil war over leaving the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights, which he said the court had shown red herring. The Supreme Court ruling specifically stated that several international treaties were at play when it rejected the scheme, not just the European Convention on Human Rights.
David Jones, a staunch Brexiteer, suggested that Sunak had done enough to keep colleagues at bay, noting: He understands that law will be needed to enforce the necessary legislation.
A Conservative Party strategist, who was granted anonymity to speak freely, agreed: Rishi had rightly bought himself time, as the press conference was tighter than expected.
But Sunax’s latest attempt to possess both horses presents him with a whole new and unpleasant set of obstacles to clear.
There are big questions about how his proposals would work out in practice. Declaring the law that Rwanda is safe would save politics in domestic courts, but not in Strasbourg, leading to the specter of abandoning the Convention.
The New Conservatives, a group of MPs who want to see the party take a much tougher line on immigration, crime and the culture wars, issued a statement having said that it will take more than a declaration, we must take action now to ensure that this time, finally, there simply is no possibility for rights-based lawsuits against deportation.
Former prime minister Boris Johnson and hardliner Jacob Rees-Mogg have previously proposed similar ideas involving legislation to circumvent court concerns about Rwanda’s respect for human rights.
Apart from party management, there was another reason why Sunak had no choice but to move on. Stopping the boats remains one of his five totemic promises, and a prime minister who prides himself on his ability to deliver cannot be seen to deviate from it.
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He made that clear when he linked that promise to another at a press conference, declaring: When I said we would halve inflation, I meant it. When I said I would stop the boats, I meant it.
Some, however, remained skeptical about whether the public still believed in that ability to deliver. David Scullion, a writer for Critic magazine and a former assistant to Braverman, said: It’s not going to work and the only thing that will satisfy the critics at this stage is probably if the boats actually stop.
In addition, Sunax’s week of major moves to double down on deportations from Rwanda after the centrist-dominated reconstruction left many observers confused as to what he really stands for.
Rishi is extremely politically confused and has been sending mixed messages about what he wants and what he actually believes, said a former No. 10 adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak freely. He has no idea how to win.
The same Tory strategist quoted above noted: Its now clean flights are not going to happen, so there is no long term plan for small boats. Which overall means they’re in serious trouble for the election.
For now, though, Sunax’s actions have led to a deeper rift in the party that allows it to move on as the stalemate over the Rwanda plan continues.
Emilio Casalicchio and Dan Bloom contributed reporting.
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