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Tories want to create dividing lines with Labour – but small boats week shows that can backfire | Politics News

To sanitise a quote from fictional government spin doctor Malcolm Tucker, “no one talks about dodgy donors okay? Because it makes everybody look bad.”

The real-life Downing Street operation may be learning a similar lesson to this during their summer campaign to try and create dividing lines with Labour on key election issues.

Put plainly: is it wise to throw the spotlight onto policy areas like housing, migration and health when the Conservative’s own record is patchy at best?

Take the so-called “small boats week”.

The aim was to demonstrate tangible progress and restate Tory commitment to hard-line measures to discourage channel crossings.

In reality, we ended the week with 39 migrants being taken off a barge in Dorset because of a Legionella alert; an uptick in channel crossings and the total number of people recorded making the journey passing the 100,000 mark; and six people losing their lives in the Channel after their boat began to sink off the French coast.

A rescue operation this weekend after a migrant boat capsized

The Bibby Stockholm affair is arguably the biggest backfire.

It’s important to remember that – despite the endless media attention – the vessel was never much of an answer to the vexed question of what to do with the 50,000 or so asylum seekers housed in hotels.

Even at full capacity, the Bibby would only take 1% of that number.

No, the aim of the barge was for it to be a symbol of the government’s no holds barred approach to irregular migration.

It’s now warped into something quite different.

Tory MPs and voters may be forgiven for wondering what chance there is of hundreds of asylum seekers being permanently settled in Rwanda if the government can’t even keep a few dozen on a barge in Dorset for more than a week.

Or to put it another way, this is about competency.

And that’s what makes it dangerous for Rishi Sunak, because he has staked his premiership on his broader ability to fix problems and get things done.

But that’s not to say there aren’t some questions for Labour as well.

Part of the political strategy behind the Bibby Stockholm was to force Labour to take a position on this divisive election issue.

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Campaigners: ‘More people will die’ in Channel

The party appeared to do that this week with the shadow immigration minister calling the measure a “mess” but also suggesting they would initially keep the barge if in government.

The partial implosion of the policy now shows the potential dangers of this flavour of political triangulation and will likely fuel calls from the left of the party for the leadership to be bolder in speaking out on divisive so-called “wedge” issues.

So what next?

We’re told to expect a focus on the NHS in the coming days with the Health Secretary Steve Barclay provocatively writing to the Labour and SNP-run governments in Wales and Scotland to offer help with waiting lists.

But again, how wise is this given the health service in England starts the week with junior doctors on strike and with NHS leaders warning it may not be possible to meet the prime minister’s promise of cutting waiting lists?

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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaking to the media during his visit to Shell St Fergus Gas Plant in Peterhead, Aberdeenshire, for the announcement of further measures to protect the UK's long-term energy security. Picture date: Monday July 31, 2023.

Of course, the reason these strategies look risky is because of the unstable domestic backdrop the government is presiding over.

The hope in Downing Street is that by the time of the next election, progress on the economy, healthcare and migration will give ministers a firmer footing to launch attacks from.

The calculation for this current campaign may simply be “why not?” – given Labour’s huge poll lead and the fact that public attention is largely elsewhere during the summer break.

Or to put it another way: such is the state of the glass house Rishi Sunak is currently sat in, there’s probably little harm in throwing a few stones.

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