(Bloomberg) -- In the spring of 2022, Rishi Sunak, then UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, pored over details of a tough new immigration policy devised by then Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel: to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda.
Sunak and his Treasury team didn’t think much of the policy, privately raising concerns with Downing Street and Cabinet colleagues about whether it would work and if it provided value for money, six people involved in the discussions said. Sunak also had objections on ethical grounds, they said.
Now prime minister, Sunak has adopted the Rwanda plan as his flagship migration policy as he seeks to stave off pressure from the right of his governing Conservative Party and find divisions to close a 20-point polling deficit with the Labour opposition. That means his political fate may now hinge on making work a policy he never loved — something members of his own government fear may turn out to be a political miscalculation.
The signs aren’t good. The government has paid Rwanda £240 million ($301 million) so far, and no deportations have yet taken place. The UK courts have ruled the plan unlawful, and the two senior ministers in charge of the policy left the Cabinet demanding a harder line still.
With a first vote on legislation to implement the policy due in the House of Commons on Tuesday, Sunak is spending the weekend trying to quell rebellions from both the right and center of his party that pull him in different directions.
Some Tory lawmakers are plotting to oust him. Allies of his predecessor Liz Truss have held talks with colleagues about writing letters of no confidence in Sunak, and some want Simon Clarke, a right-wing backbencher, to challenge him, people familiar with those conversations said. Truss’s spokesman said she’s not plotting, while Clarke told Bloomberg he wants the government to succeed.
Yet even some of Sunak’s own inner circle wonder how he finds himself in such a mess. His critics say the answer lies in the journey he has taken, hardening his position on immigration in an effort to win favor, only to satisfy few Tories, or indeed voters.
Record levels of net immigration haven’t helped. In the Treasury, he pushed for more foreign graduates to be allowed to stay post-study, for migrant workers to be able to bring dependents, and for a lower salary threshold to enable more foreign workers, all in pursuit of economic growth, the six people said.
“Instinctively, Sunak has a rosy view about immigration,” said Sunder Katwala, director of the British Future think tank, which works on migration policy. “As chancellor he was relaxed with a liberal regime on legal migration. That’s changed since he became prime minister.”
Sunak’s office declined to comment on his past views.
The premier this week announced a clampdown on legal migration, including a higher salary threshold and less leeway to bring dependents, in an effort to deliver a record cut to net migration.
Tory insiders say the turnaround results from mounting pressure to cut the surge in migration Sunak presided over as chancellor. Concerns stem both from Tory lawmakers and polling data suggesting his party is losing support to the right-wing Reform Party, set up by Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage.
The problem is that these changes of position risk appearing cynical and motivated by his personal situation, rather than ideological conviction, a former minister said. Another said Sunak was losing the trust of colleagues because of the political games he played during his rise to power.
That wavering trust is evident as Tory MPs decide whether to vote for a new law Sunak says will get flights to Rwanda off the ground. Some right-wingers are suspicious the premier cooked up a ruse with the Rwandan government that saw it warn against Britain breaking its international commitments in order to justify softer legislation than they are calling for. Downing Street denies that.
In a split reminiscent of the party’s fractures over Brexit, Tory moderates, meanwhile, are concerned about the UK riding roughshod over international treaties. Number 10 hopes to convince enough potential rebels on both sides to back the legislation, warning the alternative is another leadership crisis that will hurt the party further. The Tories are on their fifth leader since 2016, and party Chairman Richard Holden told reporters this week another leadership challenge would be “insanity.”
A minister predicted the party’s right does not have the numbers to remove Sunak: 53 no confidence letters from Tory lawmakers are needed to trigger an internal confidence vote, which then would require a majority to oust him. They said that instead Sunak would limp on, comparing him to Monty Python’s comedy sketch where a knight loses limb after limb but insists it’s “just a flesh wound.”
Some Tory lawmakers had hoped Sunak would make the next election an effective referendum on migration and his Rwanda policy. One said immigration minister Robert Jenrick’s resignation this week made that impossible, as Labour and Reform would just be able to cite his criticisms as evidence of Sunak’s failure. A Labour official said their preferred outcome is that Sunak leads the Tories into the election but is mortally wounded by endless Tory infighting. For some Westminster watchers, that appears to already be the case.
“The public mood is negative and confidence in the government’s ability to deliver on public priorities is low,” said Keiran Pedley from the pollster Ipsos. “Another round of Conservative in-fighting is unlikely to dissuade the voters it’s time for a change.”
--With assistance from Ellen Milligan.
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.
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