After the Supreme Court’s ruling, can Rishi still ‘stop the boats’?

Michael Dowsett, Associate Director

After a week which had already seen plenty of political fireworks, the Supreme Court has ruled this morning against the Government’s Rwanda scheme, delivering a major political blow to Rishi Sunak and putting major pressure on the Government to come up with a new answer to how it intends to ‘stop the boats’.

Combined with Suella Braverman’s excoriating letter to the PM published yesterday, in which she accused him of major breaches of faith over the Government’s immigration policy, this opens up new divisions and vulnerabilities for the Government at a time when it’s already struggling to close the polling gap with Labour.

The small boats crisis is of course only one item on the charge sheet that voters have been compiling against the Government for the past two years. The rising cost of living, public services struggling to deal with post-pandemic backlogs and a decades-high tax burden are all playing their part in the Conservatives’ current political woes.

Let’s not diminish though the political peril this judgement leaves the Government in. The Conservatives have won elections in recent times through either explicitly promising lower levels of immigration (such as the ‘tens of thousands’ commitment in 2010 and 2015) or to deliver Brexit: a policy closely tied in most voters’ minds with tighter border control. It can’t be surprising then to see analysis indicating that small boats is a principal driver of former Conservative voters away from the party. On the principle that every cloud has a silver lining, the PM must be relieved that Nigel Farage is currently preoccupied in the Australian jungle rather than on the political front line able to make mischief out of the Government’s troubles.

Until recently, some commentators have seen a Supreme Court defeat as providing a potential route to political revival for the Tories, providing an opportunity to rail against the judicial system ​(as Boris Johnson did over prorogation in 2019) and frame the forthcoming election around radical changes to human rights law, potentially including ECHR withdrawal.

That path, if it ever existed, has now closed. The sacking of Braverman and broader pivot to the left of the Conservative Party (embodied by the return of David Cameron) in this week’s reshuffle do not speak to a Prime Minister gearing up for a no-holds-barred approach to this issue, and if the claims in the former Home Secretary’s letter are to be believed, they have never properly been on the table. Now a real political opportunity is there for the right of the party, both to critique what they’ll no doubt see as an inadequate Government response to the ruling and to frame any election defeat next year as a result of an indulgence in half measures by a PM captured by Tory moderates.

That’s for the future. For today, the ball is of course still in the Government’s court. Options mooted include formalizing the current agreement with Rwanda into a treaty – which the PM confirmed at PMQs earlier – or even looking to strike similar partnerships with other countries. Whether either approach, or further (undefined) changes to the UK’s “legal frameworks”, would do the trick is up for debate, but they would certainly take time. This is something the Government is fast running out of if it wants to see flights take off – and ideally the resulting deterrent effect filtering through to the number of cross-Channel crossings falling – ahead of polling day.

The rationale for an autumn election next year has been that, particularly through improving economic news, the Government would have time to close the Labour poll lead sufficiently to be competitive going into the ‘short campaign’. Events today, with this morning’s announcement that the Government had hit its goal of halving inflation quickly being moved off the news schedule by the court ruling, could capture in microcosm the political problem the Government has next year, with another summer of boat crossings projecting an image of chaos which crowds out any positive economic news. So much for the PM’s hope of trying to make political capital out of projecting steadiness and governing competence.

If the Conservatives crash to a large defeat next year, there will be many events proffered for where the point of no return was reached. It’s not hard to see how this will be one of them, and one which will loom large in any electoral post-mortem and the future of the Conservatives in opposition. 

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