OPINION - Rishi Sunak’s problem isn’t small boats – it’s everything else

 (Ben Turner)
(Ben Turner)

When governments do things, it is often for one of three reasons. The first is that MPs are rational actors seeking re-election, so they try to pass laws that are broadly popular (or they hope will prove to be by the next election) with the median voter, such as subsiding energy bills.

The second starts off similarly to the first, but diverges when the thing they want to do is popular with a specific group of voters who live in electorally important areas, or are key to the government’s voting coalition, or both.

The third – and this is sometimes overlooked by the more cynical amongst us – is that MPs who have donated perfectly good evenings to the Conservative rubber chicken circuit or Labour’s National Policy Forum genuinely believe in things and want to enact legislation that promotes their policy preferences.

Of course, those preferences will not always hold widespread support from the public or be rewarded at the ballot box. Part of the problem is that Tory MPs generally hold views to the right of British public opinion, Labour to the left while the Lib Dems mix it up by believing one thing locally and another nationally. With that said, let’s turn to the small boats issue.

A recent YouGov poll found that 32 per cent of voters ‘strongly support’ banning migrants who come to the UK in small boats from being able to settle permanently. A further 18 per cent ‘somewhat support’ the policy. So, the Tories are onto a winner, right?

Maybe. There is a substantial partisan split – 53 per cent of Tory voters strongly support it, but only 16 per cent of Labour and 18 per cent of Lib Dem voters agree. While this legislation could motivate Conservatives to go to the polls, it also has the potential to do the same for other parties. As Mike Smithson of Political Betting delicately puts it, making an appeal to your base “when you are 20% or more behind in the voting polls might not be the right approach.”

And that’s if the policy actually works. If all that happens is the government takes a tough line on small boats but for logistical and legal reasons nothing changes, it instead has the potential to de-motivate Tory voters. And there’s another problem. Labour actually leads the Conservatives on handling immigration both nationally and, according to Redfield & Wilton Strategies, in the red wall too.

But here’s the rub. The latest Ipsos Issues Index, which asks respondents to name the most important issues facing the country, found that 40 per cent of Britons listed the economy, while 35 per cent mentioned inflation and prices. The NHS came third with 25 per cent, with immigration fifth on 12 per cent.

Therefore, even if this legislation were to magically sort the small boats issue, one must be a little sceptical as to whether this would translate into a statistically significant bump in Tory support. Not least when the Windsor Framework, which secured meaningful reforms to the Northern Ireland Protocol, has not seemed to move the dial much, largely because conditions in Northern Ireland are not a priority for most residents of Great Britain.

My suggestion, and it’s not a helpful one, would be that Rishi Sunak asks the King for a general election only when living standards are rising and public services improving. That must happen no later than 24 January 2025.

In the comment pages, Nimco Ali says we mustn’t let the latest honours row distract us from the great work of ordinary heroes. While Robbie Smith, who has booked a cycling holiday in England during the coldest week of the year, suggests you warm yourself up with the knowledge you’re having a better time than him.

And finally, David Ellis ropes in Josh Barrie to try a new Guinness gadget, which promises pub-like pints at home. The results are... mixed.

This article appears in our newsletter, West End Final – delivered 4pm daily – bringing you the very best of the paper, from culture and comment to features and sport. Sign up here.