Matt Goodwin is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange and shares his research at mattgoodwin.org.
Rishi Sunak has just suffered a two-punch combination that would have made Rocky Balboa proud.
First, his outgoing former Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, claimed that when it comes to regaining control of Britain’s borders the Prime Minister has ‘no appetite for doing what is necessary’, is engaged in magical thinking’, and failing to deliver on the party’s promise to do exactly that in 2019.
Then the Supreme Court ruled that the Government’s proposed plan to regain control over Britain’s borders – the Rwanda plan – is not fit for purpose. While Rwanda, it ruled, is unsafe for asylum seekers, the policy itself is in breach of many international and domestic laws.
Both these events underline how, as I predicted a few years ago, the issue of immigration is now fully back at the centre of our national life and will exert a profound influence on the outcome of the rapidly approaching general election next year.
Ask all British voters to name the most important issues facing the country ahead of the general election and while they put immigration third – behind the economy and health – the people who voted Conservative in 2019 put immigration first, ahead of both the economy and healthcare.
This not only underlines the magnitude of the immigration issue for voters but also its ongoing potential to completely obliterate what remains of Rishi Sunak’s rapidly diminishing hopes of a surprise victory next year.
Put simply, if Sunak’s government cannot demonstrate it is regaining control of the borders and making serious progress in resolving the illegal migration crisis then it’s chance of pulling off a surprise victory is, in my mind, zero.
When it comes to the Rwanda plan, one of the big problems facing Rishi Sunak is that he inherited, from Boris Johnson, a policy that was actually more popular than most people, though especially the commentariat, tend to think.
As my own firm People Polling found this week, when asked if they support or oppose ‘the Government’s plan to send asylum-seekers and illegal migrants to Rwanda’, 40 per cent of all voters said they support the plan while 32 per cent opposed it, with the remainder saying they don’t know (YouGov find much the same).
But what really matters for Sunak is what the key groups of voters that will determine his party’s election fortunes think. Currently, he is only holding around half of the people who voted for Boris Johnson four years ago.
And among these voters, support for the Rwanda plan rockets to much higher levels – to 71 per cent among 2019 Conservative Party voters, to 67 per cent among Brexit voters, and to 51 per cent among skilled ‘C2’ working-class voters, all of whom rallied in very large numbers behind Boris Johnson at the 2019 general election.
These voters, in short, are united in seeing immigration as an absolute priority, in wanting immigration levels to be reduced, in believing immigration represents more a problem than an opportunity, and in thinking the government has ‘lost control’ of Britain’s borders. Consistently, they lean much further to the cultural right on this issue than most Conservative MPs.
Being disconnected from your core base on an issue they rank as the third or fourth most important is manageable; being disconnected from your core case on an issue they consider to be the most important facing the country is deeply problematic.
Polling that has been undertaken since the Supreme Court’s ruling, meanwhile, points in the same direction. When asked what, if anything, the Government should do in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling, only 16 per cent of Conservative voters, just one in eight, think the Government should ‘scrap the [Rwanda policy entirely’ (a view shared by 39 per cent of all voters).
While half of Conservative voters, 49 per cent, think the government should ‘try to address the court rulings by finding another third country to make a similar agreement with’, another 22 per cent think it should ‘try something else’, though the polling does not suggest what that something else should be.
Either way, only a minority of Conservative voters think, as much of the commentariat appear to think, that the government should simply abandon the plan altogether.
Though it will not solve the problem on its own, it’s also worth noting that, since the Supreme Court’s ruling, the option of leaving the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is backed by only 28 per cent of all voters but a majority of Conservative and Brexit voters, with 54 per cent and 55 per cent backing withdrawal from the ECHR respectively and only 25 per cent and 24 per cent opposing this.
This too suggests the very voters needs to win back are on side with a robust if not radical response to the Supreme Court’s ruling, and instinctively sympathise with the Prime Minister’s call to do ‘whatever it takes’ to solve the issue.
But there is no doubt he is running out of time. Look under the bonnet of the very latest polling, and you get a sense of what is beginning to unfold. Rishi Sunak is only holding around 38 per cent of 2019 Conservatives, with 11 per cent turning to Labour, another 11 per cent to Reform, and a striking 33 per cent either saying they don’t know or would not vote at all. A toxic combination of rebellion and apathy now pervades the 2019 electorate.
Last night, Rishi Sunak promised to respond to the Supreme Court’s ruling and the continued chaos on the borders by promising to introduce “emergency legislation” that would enable Parliament to “confirm Rwanda is safe”, and “engage with a process of reform” with the ECHR.
But whether this will be enough to finally get flights off the ground as planned in the spring of next year seems doubtful – at least if you listen to Rishi Sunak’s growing number of critics, including former Braverman.
They are now briefing, again, that this is merely more of the same ‘magical thinking’ and that the prime minister is simply not up to the job of securing and strengthening Britain’s borders. And what is clear is that this view is now increasingly also held by a majority of Conservative voters, 85 per cent of whom now say Sunak’s government is managing immigration, their top priority, ‘badly’.
So make no mistake, unless Sunak can somehow conjure up a realistic and workable plan for restoring border security and resolving the illegal migration crisis in time for the general election then he won’t just suffer a two punch combination – he’ll be completely knocked out.