Sunak’s Allies Urge Him to Focus on Starmer, Not Farage Ahead of Election

(Bloomberg) -- Rishi Sunak’s advisers are pushing the prime minister to fight the looming general election with Keir Starmer’s Labour Party on the economy rather than risk boosting Nigel Farage’s Reform UK by talking too loudly about migration.

Most Read from Bloomberg

As the Tories zero in on their electoral strategy, Sunak’s team wants him to face down right-wingers in the governing Conservative Party and ram his flagship immigration law declaring Rwanda a safe destination for deported asylum seekers through Parliament without major concessions, people familiar with the matter said.

The tactics Sunak pursues matter if he’s to close a polling deficit behind Labour that YouGov puts at over 20 points before a general election expected in the fall. While Sunak has made five pledges to voters focusing on the economy, the National Health Service and migration, polling suggests the cost of living remains foremost in people’s minds, and Tories have stepped up attacks in recent weeks on Labour’s spending plans in an attempt to cast the opposition as being irresponsible with taxpayer money.

“It will be difficult for the Conservatives to win a political arms race on immigration with Reform UK, who can promise anything they like knowing they will never have to deliver it,” Ipsos pollster Keiran Pedley told Bloomberg. “The Conservatives may have more joy focusing on arguments with Labour over the economy, spending and tax.”

But Tory divisions over migration are unavoidable until Sunak has passed the Rwanda legislation, which is due for a vote Wednesday in the House of Commons. Ahead of that, the Tory right is not going down quietly. Lawmakers are preparing what may be their last serious challenge to the premier’s authority before the general election. If they don’t get what they want, Brexit campaigner Farage and his Reform Party hope to entice die-hard rebels into defecting.

Sunak’s law is a fresh attempt to get deportation flights going to Rwanda after the policy was ruled unlawful by the UK’s highest court in November. That was a major blow to his pledge to crack down on asylum seekers crossing the English Channel in small boats. The government argues that sending those migrants to Rwanda would deter further crossings, but some right-wingers believe the proposed law is unworkable and will see deportees lodging appeals, nixing the chances of flights taking off before the election.

Downing Street this weekend is holding talks with rebel Members of Parliament including Robert Jenrick, who resigned as immigration minister over the bill in December, about possible clarifications to language in the legislation. Sunak’s advisers say they hope most of the 29 MPs who abstained in last month’s vote on the law will back it this time, because they ultimately don’t want to challenge his leadership and derail the government in an election year.

Government whips see a core group of five to 10 Tory MPs, mainly allies of former Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who could oppose them. Braverman told GB News on Friday that she would vote against the bill, describing it as a “betrayal to Britain.” The rebels’ real intention is to undermine the prime minister and win favor with right-wing party members ahead of a future leadership contest, a government aide said. One rebel dismissed that suggestion, adding that dozens of MPs were demanding changes.

With talks between rebels and the government likely to go to the wire, Jenrick will present private legal advice on amendments he says can reduce the chance of legal challenges. Still, Sunak doesn’t intend to make material changes, arguing that doing so would risk breaching international law, lose Rwanda’s cooperation, and spark a larger rebellion from Tory centrists, people familiar with his thinking said.

Tory strategists see next week as an inflection point before the election campaign. They want to get the Rwanda bill passed, shut down bitter internal divisions over migration and focus relentlessly on the economy. That’s where the election will be decided, one aide said, adding Sunak’s best hope of avoiding a crushing defeat is getting inflation below the Bank of England’s 2% target, with growth ticking up by the summer.

For now, the economic picture isn’t rosy, with the economy stagnant, inflation at 3.9%, and debt close to 98% of gross domestic product.

A Global Counsel poll published by Bloomberg this week found voters see the cost of living as the biggest issue facing the country over immigration by a margin of 64% to 30%. The Tories trailed Labour by 23 points in a YouGov poll Friday, the latest in a long line of surveys showing Starmer is on course for power.

Sunak this month tried a new slogan urging voters to “stick with the plan.” That applies mainly to the economy but also to migration, another adviser said, insisting Channel crossings were down last year and could soon fall by 50%. The last thing the party needs is to spend coming months debating a tougher approach, they said.

Immigration should be a secondary plank of the Tory campaign rather than its focus, another adviser said, warning that increasing its public salience would help Reform. Another aide agreed, citing Bill Clinton strategist James Carville’s advice that “it’s the economy, stupid.”

Sunak must first heed his own advice to stick to the plan, some Tory lawmakers believe. He was mocked by Starmer on Wednesday over a series of strategy pivots, ranging from attempting to portray himself as representing “change” in October to this week’s plea for continuity. Sunak’s aides must not enable his tendency to relaunch, one MP said.

Farage’s Reform, meanwhile, spies an opportunity to damage the Tories if the Rwanda bill isn’t toughened. They’re targeting demoralized right-wing rebels with proposals to join their party, saying private polling suggests standing for Reform on an anti-immigration platform would improve their chances of keeping their seats.

Nevertheless, migration is unlikely to fall far down the agenda, even after next week’s vote, according to James Johnson, co-founder of pollster JL Partners. “Immigration is salient because of immigration, not because the government talks about it,” he said.

Most Read from Bloomberg Businessweek

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.