How does Rishi Sunak avoid the impression sinking in that Britain is broken, when that is the very word his home secretary recently used to describe the handling of one of the country’s biggest challenges?
While pulling the NHS back from the brink and rescuing the Conservatives’ reputation for economic security remain two of the prime minister’s top priorities, he is nervously keeping an eye on a third.
Immigration and asylum now poll as third among the most important issues facing the UK and many Conservative MPs say concern about people being smuggled across the channel is filling up their post bag.
Vote Leave’s pledge in 2016 to “take back control of our borders” was meant to be fulfilled when Brexit was delivered. But Suella Braverman shattered that illusion less than two months ago when she said: “The system is broken. Illegal migration is out of control.”
Wary of being perceived as weak given his penchant for U-turns, Sunak knows the political ramifications of failing to solve a salient problem in the minds of voters and some of his backbenchers.
There has been tough rhetoric, promises about implementing the Rwanda removal scheme and agreeing similar deals with other countries, as well as more constructive work with France to try to reduce the influx of those seeking to claim asylum.
But no one thinks the problem has been solved just because of a drop-off in small boat crossings during the winter months. “It’s all tied to the weather, and the smugglers are getting bolder and going on worse days,” said one source.
Sunak promised “huge progress” to tackle the problem with a suite of measures, including a target of ending the UK’s backlog of asylum claims by the end of 2023, speeding up the removal of arrivals specifically from Albania and toughening up the requirement for people to prove they have been a victim of modern slavery.
It was delivered with fanfare to the Tory benches, most of whom spoke supportively.
No 10 had three of the most vociferous government critics – Lee Anderson, Natalie Elphicke and Scott Benton – in a meeting on Tuesday morning to butter them up.
In private, one minister said the announcement had “cross-party support” – usually meaning government and opposition agreement, but in this case betraying relief at the announcement’s endorsement by hardline and moderate Tories.
However, there is still significant hesitancy among some.
“It’s not what’s said, it’s what done what matters,” muttered one sceptic jaded by previous promises of action that turn out to have little impact. “It’s all about making it work,” cautioned another.
Theresa May, who pioneered the modern slavery legislation Sunak said would be overhauled, was seen glowering at him intensely throughout the nearly 90-minute statement.
Albanians are also now said to make up about a third of the number of those in the asylum claims system, meaning some Tory MPs believe such removal deals with other countries are necessary.
Roger Gale, a Tory MP in Kent, cautiously welcomed the “small but significant steps” and told Sunak that truly grappling with the scale of the problem would mean working on a “pan-European basis”.
The Conservatives cannot afford small steps in the polls, where they have trailed behind Labour for months on the question of which party voters trust to be best at handling the issue of asylum and immigration.
Sunak knows the electoral odds of winning the next general election are stacked against him – so is desperate to keep hold of the 2019 winning coalition of true blue southern heartlands and the “red wall” in northern England.
“He needs people like Lee [Anderson] and others on side to demonstrate to constituencies he’s taking a hardline approach,” one MP noted.
But a new model from the pollster Savanta has reignited jitters inside the party that it is on course for a wipeout. If a general election were held now, the multilevel regression and post-stratification (MRP) polling suggests the Conservatives would be reduced to just 69 seats, with Keir Starmer’s Labour on 482 and a majority of 314.
Given Tory MPs believe Sunak has taken “personal charge” of the immigration issue, any failure to significantly stem the numbers of arrivals when the weather improves risks further damaging the Conservatives’ electoral fortunes.