It was only a month ago that Rishi Sunak used a major speech to insist “the plan is working” on his pledge to “stop the boats” crossing the Channel.
It looked like a major hostage to fortune, with the usual summer peak in crossings looming just around the corner.
Weeks later, the Prime Minister has been forced to deal with the fall-out from a record number of small boats arriving in June, his Rwanda deportation plan being ruled unlawful by the Court of Appeal and the Lords tearing his Illegal Migration Bill to shreds.
Nervous and “angry” Conservative MPs are now wondering whether Mr Sunak has overpromised and are demanding ‘plan B’ ‘measures, with discarded ideas such as offshore processing in the UK and pushbacks in the Channel re-entering the conversation alongside quitting the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
One Tory MP said “I hope there’s a plan B”, but doubted Mr Sunak would ever go for quitting the ECHR. “He will never be that radical”, the MP said.
MPs’ fears were compounded after Home Secretary Suella Braverman was forced to give herself powers that could see her delaying the main plank of the flagship Bill – automatic deportation – even further, in a tacit admission that the entire plan to “stop the boats” rests on the Supreme Court’s judgment on Rwanda later this year.
“This Bill is now naked, they overreached,” a senior MP said.
“This is the Government’s last chance saloon moment.”
MPs who have backed the Government’s plan are “livid” and “angry” about the prospects for the pledge, the senior figure said.
“They feel like they have been marched to the top of the hill by Rishi’s overzealous briefing machine,” the MP said.
“Now people feel they have been lied to. There is no confidence in Suella, people think she is full of right-wing rhetoric just to be a crowd pleaser.
“The pledge is gone and trust has gone as well and any confidence that the Government can deliver.”
Madeleine Sumption, Director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, provided a crumb of possible comfort for Mr Sunak, telling i it was simply “too early to say” whether his policies are having an effect on small boat crossings.
“Research has tended to find that policies are not the major reason for changes in the number of asylum applications, but there may be exceptions,” she said. “One of the most striking trends in the data is that the number of Albanian citizens arriving in small boats dramatically decreased over the winter.
“It is possible that the Government’s operational activities played a role in this drop, although their effect is hard to measure. However, the main test of whether this change is long-lasting will be over the summer.”
Meanwhile, there are concerns in the Cabinet about the Government’s messaging on legal immigration. It comes after Mr Sunak rejected tough Home Office plans to bear down on record net immigration of 606,000, and it was made clear that the Cabinet regarded visa rules as largely settled until the next election despite a new faction of Tory MPs called the New Conservatives calling for a tougher approach.
One Cabinet minister said immigration was “always a top two issue” on the doorstep but that voters did not tend to raise the small boats crisis, suggesting instead concerns were focused around a broader feeling that there are too many arrivals.
They admitted the Government needs to do a better job in explaining how its skills and workforce policy – boosted in Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s “back-to-work” Budget – marries up with the long-term goal of reducing immigration by allowing Britons to eventually fill job vacancies.
But ministers are also facing flak from moderate voters over their hardline approach on asylum, which the Cabinet minister blamed on the Government failing to sufficiently highlight humanitarian resettlement schemes for Ukrainians, Afghans and Hong Kongers in the same way that David Cameron build a successful “narrative” around the Syrian refugee scheme under his premiership.
But while moderate Tories rebelled in the latest votes on the Illegal Migration Bill in fresh calls for more safe and legal routes, right-wingers expressed concerns about the lack of a plan B to Rwanda.
Noting the latest changes to the legislation, Tom Hunt, one of the 2019 intake of Tory MPs, warned during Tuesday’s debate on Lords amendments: “I don’t think we can put all of our eggs in the Rwanda basket.”
As well as ongoing calls to put quitting the ECHR – or a referendum on it – in the next Tory manifesto, MPs are now reviving calls for offshore island processing centres and pushbacks in the Channel – policies previously considered and discarded by the Government.
MPs pushed Ms Braverman on the issue during a meeting on Monday, with one saying the Home Secretary “acknowledges there needs to be more work on a plan B” in case the Rwanda plan is killed by the courts, and because there is little faith in France taking decisive action despite Mr Sunak agreeing to pay £480m for action on small boats.
One MP said: “If I was President Macron and I had Marine Le Pen breathing down my neck and all these people wanted to come to the UK – there are not necessarily the political incentives for Macron to solve this.”
They added: “We don’t want to be in a situation where it’s already been 14 or 15 months when the Rwanda policy was introduced, we don’t want to be in a situation where by the end of this year, the Supreme Court may say no and we’re wondering what we do now.
“Plan B could also happen in addition to plan A, a lot of us would like to hear about that being developed.”
The MP also acknowledged that Mr Sunak’s pledge may never be met, but still called for a considerably better performance if the party is to have any chance at the next election.
“The numbers need to be pointing in the right direction in quite a significant way, we need to see flights to Rwanda and we need to clear out most of the hotels,” they said. “That would amount to significant progress in many voters’ minds.”