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Sunak Under the Spotlight

Martin Kettle, Katy Balls and Kevan James

December 2022.

UK Politics and politicians have never been held in lower esteem than they are currently. Three writers present their views, Martin Kettle of The Guardian, Katy Balls, i columnist and KJM Today’s Kevan James.

Its fear of Farage that’s driving the agenda - the threat that the former UKIP leader may attract right-wing support inside and outside the party is causing sleepless nights.

Martin Kettle

In arguably the best book on British politics, published in 2022, Michael Crick suggests that in the past half-century, this country’s five most significant politicians have been Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Alex Salmond, Boris Johnson – and Nigel Farage. The first four exerted their influence on events by getting elected to high office. The fifth, Farage, did not. But his influence is as strong today as ever.

Farage’s case for inclusion on this select list rests on two things. The first is his potent ability to connect with the public. As one of his media advisers puts it: “He speaks fluent human.” The other is his unmatched ability to influence other politicians without engaging with them directly, without ever displaying much discernible interest in policy, without getting elected to parliament, without ever having run anything, and in spite of leaving a trail of enemies and political casualties in his wake.

In spite of all of these things, Crick concludes, Farage has been: “a more significant player than most leaders of the traditional political parties, more influential than quite a few prime ministers”. Fail to understand this, and you may fail to understand not only the Brexit referendum of 2016 but also to understand continuing British politics of the early 21st century at all, right up to and including the present time.

He doesn’t make daily headlines just now, but his influence is as strong today as ever. That’s because, although Farage nominally retired from politics a couple of years ago, his flirtations with a return to the fray continue to shape the way that politics is evolving. In fact, it is hard to understand the Conservative party as it staggers from 2022 into 2023 without the Farage factor. The same, to a lesser extent, is even true of Labour.

The Farage factor is really the fear of Farage factor. In the Tories’ case, you may suppose, given Labour’ lead in the opinion polls, or in the light of the Liberal Democrats’ stunning bye-election victories in previously safe Tory seats, that the minds of most Conservative MPs are now fully concentrated on the very real threat to their seats from Keir Starmer and Ed Davey.

Not a bit of it. The threat that keeps many Tories awake at night is not from Starmer or Davey, but the one from Farage. It’s the threat, for which there are in fact only tantalising wisps of anything one would normally dignify as evidence, that Farage is about to return as leader of the UKIP and Brexit party successor, Reform UK, and campaign in the next general election on an anti-immigration platform that will reshape British politics.

If this looks a curious anxiety, consider the two parliamentary bye-elections in north-west England this month. In both City of Chester and Stretford and Urmston, Reform finished a distant fifth, well behind not just Labour (which held both seats) and the Conservatives, but the Lib Dems and the Greens. In Chester, Reform won 2.7% of the vote; in Stretford and Urmston, 3.5%. Since both seats are in the north-west, where the Farage threat is deemed to be high, these results may seem something of a corrective to the prevailing Tory fear. But you can forget that.

It may be tempting to treat this anxiety with a “more fools they,” dismissal. But this fails to take account of the still febrile state of the Tory party at the end of the year of three prime ministers. It fails to take account of the fact that much of the Tory right at Westminster agrees with Farage. It fails to grasp, in particular, that much of the party as a whole feels particularly vulnerable, post-Brexit, to public anxiety about borders.

Above all it fails to see that large parts of the party do not regard Rishi Sunak as what he actually is – the Tory party’s best chance of minimising its losses against Starmer in 2024. Instead, these Conservatives see Sunak as a stopgap who, if he veers off their agenda, should be ousted in favour of a leader better able to defend the party’s right flank against Farage. Ask yourself at this point why Johnson, though accepting that he could not run again as leader when Liz Truss quit in October, is now once again putting himself about at Westminster and pledging to stay as an MP, and you may have a clue to what some MPs would like to happen next year.

Nowhere is the fear of Farage more clear or more potent than over immigration policy. Polls show that six out of 10 voters – and three-quarters of 2019 Tory voters – think Britain has lost control of its borders. Farage has greater backing to deal with this issue than either Sunak or Starmer. One in six 2019 Tory voters claim they would vote for Reform next time. Suella Braverman is attempting to position herself as the tribune of these Farage-fearing Tories. Sunak is not standing up to them.

The Duke of Wellington, later a Conservative prime minister, once said that the presence of Napoleon on the battlefield was worth 40,000 extra soldiers to the other side. In the duke’s party today, they think that about Farage. “He can move numbers, he can move polls, he can move people,” a Tory MP said last week. Well, maybe he can. Maybe he can’t. But in the Tory party it’s the thought that he can that matters right now.

© Martin Kettle / The Guardian 2022

The Rwanda decision is a big victory for Rishi Sunak – so why isn’t he celebrating?

Katy Balls

Even getting one flight off the ground would be a symbolic moment and send an important message to voters

When the High Court ruled on Monday that the Government’s Rwanda scheme was lawful, it ought to have marked an important moment for Rishi Sunak’s premiership. Of all the problems currently crippling the Tory vote, the issue of small boat crossings is viewed as the most potent.

Sunak has said it is the one issue – other than the economy – he has spent the most time on since entering No 10. Polling shows it is the number-one reason Conservative voters cite for withdrawing support from the party. It follows that anything to suggest there could be progress on the issue ought to be news the Tories want to shout from the rooftop.

When the scheme was first unveiled in April by the then prime minister Boris Johnson and then home secretary Priti Patel, the idea was that it would send a signal to voters that the Tories were the only party willing to take the radical steps required to fix the problem. On announcing Johnson said he believed it would “become a new international standard in addressing the challenges of global migration and people smuggling”.

But since then, they have failed to send a single asylum seeker to the African country. It’s allowed Labour to score points by highlighting the scheme’s failure rather than getting into the specifics of what their alternative solution would be. It means that rather than an asset, the scheme has instead become a sign of government incompetence.

That frustration spreads to ministers. When Sunak was Chancellor, one of the reasons he chose to resign from Johnson’s government was exasperation with the scheme and what it highlighted. It wasn’t the fact that Sunak took a moral issue with the policy of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda. Instead, he just didn’t like the fact that a scheme had been announced to much fanfare when no one in government was quite certain it would work.

That explains the decision to have a muted response on Monday to the ruling. Following it, Downing Street refused to say if the first deportation flight would even manage to take off before the next election – expected in 2024. Speaking at the Liaison Committee in Parliament, Sunak declined to be drawn on how many people could be sent to Rwanda in the next year, replying that they expect further legal challenge.

The pessimism is in part down to remaining legal issues. Not only is there an expectation that the human rights groups and charities involved in the case could appeal, the court also ruled that the eight individual migrants in the case would need to have their claims reconsidered. This points to how getting individuals on the planes remains complex.

Yet don’t mistake the current mood music for no hope, or a desire by Sunak to focus on other policies instead. Inside government there are ambitions to send a flight to Rwanda well before the next election. The five-part plan that Sunak unveiled in the House of Commons chamber earlier this month is aimed at increasing the chances of this as well as bolstering the general approach.

The Rwanda scheme is not viewed as a silver bullet, but there is a sense that now it exists, the Government needs to find a way to make it work. Even getting one flight off the ground would be a symbolic moment and send an important message to voters. It could also allow the Tories to turn the pressure up on Labour.

‘Red Wall’ MPs are nothing short of exasperated by polling suggesting Labour lead on immigration these days. Some would like Sunak to take a more confrontational approach and pitch it as a fight against the establishment – the idea that the courts are disrupting the will of the people. The type of rhetoric that wasn’t so uncommon during the Johnson era.

But given so much is up in the air, Sunak wants to avoid mistakes of the last launch. He would rather his government under promise and over deliver than make pledges it struggles to keep. It reflects a wider approach and shift from the days of Johnson and Truss. Just as Sunak often felt that Johnson’s boosterism could lead to a failure to discuss policy trade-offs, he and his team grew frustrated with Truss through the course of the leadership campaign. Her promises of no tax rises during the leadership election riled the Sunak campaign, with his team taking the view that she was not being honest with the public given the tricky state of the public finances.

It means that Sunak is trying to turn a page and bring in a new style of government which has less in terms of big set speeches and announcements and instead working on things to point to by the time of the next election.

As he told me earlier this month: “When I stand up and tell the country this is what I’m going to do, I will actually deliver what I say and I want them to be able to trust when I say this is what’s going to happen, that’s what’s going to happen. If that means I take a little bit of extra time to get it right, that’s the right thing to do for the country and it’s the right way to restore trust in politics, if we actually deliver the things that we say.”

If it works, it’s an admirable approach. But with a restive party and voters fast losing faith on this issue among others, Sunak needs progress to point to quickly. Otherwise, his less showy approach could start to be mistaken for inaction.

© Katy Balls / i, 2022

If the Tories fall, what’s the alternative?

Kevan James

December 22, 2022

The Conservatives are widely tipped to not just lose the next general election, but to face a historic wipe-out.

There is little doubt that the biggest damage inflicted upon political parties comes from politicians themselves. Rarely, if ever, do events themselves cause a public perception problem; it is how politicians respond to them that count in the thoughts of voters.

Politicians tend towards doing and saying things that they think will resonate with those who elect them. That being so todays occupants of the House of Commons are either extremely dim, or extremely badly advised. Perhaps it is a combination of both.

Rishi Sunak is allegedly held in contempt for being treacherous toward Boris Johnson. He is, again allegedly, in sway to Klaus Schwab, of the World Economic Forum. He is also viewed poorly by some because he is quite wealthy.

Of the three, only the last is true in entirety. But having a lot of cash has never stopped anybody from being an MP or from being PM either. And there are plenty of MPs, both Labour and Tory who have bundles of money. Sunak walked away from Boris Johnson because of Johnson’s apparent support for a Tory MP on the end of a sex abuse allegation. So did a number of others in parliament and as I have written before, nothing makes a politician run away faster than the idea they might be perceived as supporting a sex offender.

That, and being continually exposed as an out-and-out liar, is why Tory MPs fell out with Boris. The resultant chaos however, is why so many seem to have fallen out with the Conservative party.

The Tories are also held to be responsible for the crushing blows to freedom that arose – and may arise yet again – from COVID-19. Yet the loss of basic liberties happened under Johnson; not Sunak. ‘Dishy Rishi’ as he became known, was apparently quite well-thought of generally as he responded as Chancellor to the restrictions of the pandemic. Only when he resigned as Chancellor did his reputation plummet (along with that of many of his colleagues).

But what would Labour have done differently? The answer is nothing. Had there been any differences, it is most likely that the restrictions would have been even more severe and long-lasting. The Prime Minister would have been Jeremy Corbyn and there can be no doubt at all as to what policies his government would have pursued.

It is not so very different now. If the Tories do not win the next election, which party will form the new government? It won’t be Reform UK. The results from Chester and Stretford show that. For all the declarations on Twitter, Reform simply will not be able to break the Tory/Labour grip on the electorate.

What Reform will do is take voters from the Conservatives, but they won’t take any significant number from Labour. Even at the height of his supposed popularity, Nigel Farage could not do that. This is because, unlike supporters of other parties, Labour’s core support has never wavered, despite the losses sustained in northern constituencies. And those core supporters will turn out and vote at elections.

Far too many people who will never vote Labour do not vote at all. That is where the next election will be won or lost. It will not be about the economy, or about immigration or anything else. As hard as it may be to accept, it remains a fact that bad politicians are elected by people who do not vote.

© Kevan James, 2022

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