Inside Story

Down the drain

As raw sewage gushes into the Thames and voters turn away in droves, Rishi Sunak’s government enters its doomed home stretch

Michael Jacobs London 4 May 2024 2298 words

A last redoubt: prime minister Rishi Sunak (front, right) with Lord Ben Houchen, who was re-elected mayor of Tees Valley despite a nineteen point swing against the Conservatives. Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

Britons woke up to two headline stories on Friday morning. Rishi Sunak’s Conservative government had suffered another huge defeat in a parliamentary by-election, pointing the way to a landslide victory for the opposition Labour Party in the forthcoming general election. And a famous open-water swimming race in the River Thames near London had been cancelled because the privatised regional water company had discharged so much raw sewage into the river it was no longer safe.

To political commentators, the link between the two stories was irresistible. “A complete sh**show,” said the wags on social media. They were not referring to the Thames.

The Tories’ by-election defeat, in the seaside resort of Blackpool in the northwest of England, saw a twenty-six percentage point swing from the Tories to Labour, the third-largest since the second world war. It is the fifth time in the past eighteen months that Labour has won a seat from the government on a swing of more than twenty points. On the same day, the Tories lost hundreds of seats to Labour in a string of English local council elections (which are also contested between the national parties).

These figures spell impending electoral disaster for Sunak. UK-wide opinion polls have had Labour at least fifteen points ahead of the Conservatives in an unbroken stretch going back eighteen months. The most recent large poll puts Labour on 45 per cent and the Conservatives on 26 per cent. Repeated in a general election this would give Labour a huge parliamentary majority of 142. In a 650-seat House of Commons, Labour would win 468 seats, more than doubling the number it won in the last election in 2019. The Tories would be reduced from the 365 they won then to just ninety-eight.

The British system allows prime ministers to call an election whenever they want, as long as it’s within five years of the last one, so the date has not yet been set. In theory, Sunak could wait until January next year. But everyone assumes the vote will be held in October or November.

Few political commentators expect the polls to change very much between now and then, but the PM will want to hang on as long as possible simply in case something turns up. The kind of landslide projected by the polls is unlikely — they always narrow during the election campaign — but the bookies don’t have very much doubt about the outcome. Labour is 8/1 on to win an outright majority, and the Tories 33/1 against.

How did it come to this for Rishi Sunak? Britain’s first non-white prime minister, the country’s youngest for over two hundred years, he was hailed as his party’s saviour when he was selected by Conservative MPs in October 2022 to clear up the mess left by the shortlived Liz Truss. But this “safe pair of hands” started dropping catches almost as soon as he took office.

Sunak quickly set out five goals for his government and asked the British public to judge him on their achievement or otherwise. One of them, to halve inflation, looked plausible. Never mind that the government is not in charge of inflation (that is the Bank of England’s job); all the economic forecasts were predicting that inflation would decline rapidly as global energy prices fell. Britain’s inflation rate is indeed now down from the 11 per cent when Sunak took office to 3 per cent today.

It was the other goals that raised eyebrows. We will “grow the economy,” said Sunak, “and cut the debt.” But Britain’s growth prospects didn’t look good, and that would have implications for debt.

Overall the British economy grew by only 0.1 per cent in the whole of 2023, and in the last six months of the year it actually shrank, sending it into a “technical recession.” The OECD now predicts that next year Britain will have the worst-performing economy of the G7 group of major industrialised countries. The Bank of England’s fourteen successive rises in interest rates — its method of tackling inflation — have of course contributed to this, ensuring that both business and consumer spending has been highly constrained. And public debt, in turn, has not come down. At 98 per cent of GDP, government debt is higher than when Sunak took office.

If Sunak’s economic goals looked puzzlingly difficult to achieve, his social policy ones seemed positively self-harming.

The first of these was to cut waiting lists in the National Health Service. With an ageing population, high post-Covid sickness rates, widespread staff shortages, nurses and doctors striking for higher pay, and funding settlements consistently lower than required to keep pace with demand, Britain’s health system has been under severe stress over the last few years. More than 7.5 million people are waiting for non-emergency treatment in England alone, up from a little over two million when the Conservatives took office in 2010, and 300,000 more than when Sunak became prime minister. Around a quarter of a million people have been waiting for over a year. Yet the government has no plan that might reverse these trends.

Sunak’s final pledge was to “stop the boats.” Over the past few years, increased surveillance of ferries and lorries crossing the English Channel has forced would-be migrants and asylum seekers trying to reach Britain to make the journey in small boats, often overcrowded and unsafe. Since 2018 nearly 120,000 people have entered by this route, and at least seventy-two have drowned trying to do so. The government has pledged that it will cut off this option.

But this has proved impossible. As of mid April, 6265 people had crossed the English Channel in small boats since the start of the year, a figure nearly a quarter higher than in the same period in 2023. As an English-speaking country where many migrant communities are already settled, Britain remains an attractive destination for the many Afghans, Iranians, Turks, Eritreans, Syrians and Iraqis fleeing persecution or destitution in their own countries. Other, safer routes (except for those from Hong Kong and Ukraine) have largely been closed. Britain is providing France with funds and security personnel to prevent the crossings, but success has been limited.

When they get to Britain these migrants are detained, mostly in town centre hotels where they often attract hostility from the local populace. Roughly 45,000 asylum seekers are now in such accommodation around the country, at an estimated daily cost of £8 million. To ease the pressure the government has commandeered disused military bases and chartered a huge barge moored off the southern English coast; but the key problem is a backlog of well over 100,000 unprocessed asylum cases. A majority of claims take more than six months to be assessed. When they are, around two-thirds of claimants are granted refugee status.

Two years ago, faced with public — but especially media — concern about the cost and perceived disruption to local communities of these numbers, the government came up with a new plan. Rather than process all asylum seekers in Britain, some would be deported to Rwanda to have their claims dealt with there. (If successful, they would then acquire refugee status in Rwanda, not Britain.) The Rwandan government offered to take around 1000 asylum seekers over a five-year period, for which it would be paid £370 million. The government claimed that the threat of being sent to Rwanda would prove such a deterrent to would-be migrants that the small boats would stop.

But there were two problems. The first was the idea of deterrence. If people were willing to risk their lives taking an inflatable dinghy across one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, they seem unlikely to be put off by the small possibility that they would be among the few such arrivals sent to Rwanda.

The second was the law. When the plan was challenged, the UK Supreme Court ruled that it was unlawful, because Rwanda was not a safe country. Inadequacies in Rwanda’s asylum system meant that refugees might be returned to the countries from which they had fled — an action explicitly prohibited by the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Britain is a signatory.

But the government would not be deterred. Last month it passed a new Act declaring that Rwanda is a safe country, whatever conditions might prevail there, and compelling the courts to disregard any British or international laws (such as the Refugee Convention) that might block such deportations. As a long list of judges and members of the House of Lords complained, it is a novel use of the law to claim that a fact is not a fact when the government finds it inconvenient; and a dangerous one to override human rights protections put in place for just such a purpose.

But the Rwanda policy had become too much of a totem for Rishi Sunak to permit such legal niceties to stand in its way. Never mind that (as one Tory critic put it) the £370 million cost for a thousand asylum seekers deported would have made it cheaper for them all to be put up at the Ritz; this was the emblematic policy by which the PM would make good on his promise to “stop the boats.” Even if not a single boat is actually stopped, the theatrical arrest of a few hundred migrants in front of the media this week reveals the political intent. The live TV pictures planned for when the first flight to Rwanda takes off will be proclaimed as the PM’s pledge-keeping triumph.

Sunak’s problem is that there is little evidence that Rwanda will help him win the election. The British public are divided on it, with the latest polls showing around 40 per cent in support and 40 per cent opposed. And the fact that the supporters are overwhelmingly Conservative voters reveals the policy’s real electoral purpose.

For the Conservatives will not only be fighting Labour in the general election. They now also face a growing threat from their right, in the form of Reform UK, the new name for the Brexit Party that led the Leave campaign in the EU referendum of 2016. Reform UK will stand candidates in both Tory and Labour seats, but its larger threat is to the Conservatives. As the English local elections this week proved, there are not enough disgruntled voters to give Reform candidates any parliamentary seats; but Britain’s first-past-the post voting system means they could take enough votes from the Tories to hand victories to Labour, particularly in the “red wall” constituencies in the English North and Midlands that Boris Johnson famously won in 2019. Sunak hopes that his hardline stance on immigration can pull some of these voters back the Conservatives’ way.

This is not the only policy he hopes can do this. In recent weeks he has set out a whole series of pledges aimed at protecting his right flank. Adopting the classic “wedge” strategy made famous by Australian election guru Lynton Crosby — Sunak’s chief political strategist is Crosby protégé Isaac Levido — the Conservatives are trying to separate the Labour Party from its working-class supporters by appealing to some of the latter’s culturally conservative values. So in recent weeks Sunak has promised to increase defence spending, attacked the “sicknote culture” that allegedly allows people to claim they are too mentally distressed to work, and permitted exploration for oil and gas on sites earmarked for offshore wind turbines.

It is a rather crude, sub-Trumpian approach, but it is one that gets Sunak approving headlines in the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph and helps ward off attacks from his own MPs. Its only failing is that it has not moved the needle of the opinion polls at all. A year ago Sunak’s approval ratings stood at minus 17 per cent. Today they are minus 40 per cent.

The difficult truth confronting Rishi Sunak and the Conservative Party is that the British public seems to have made up its mind some time ago. It wants a change of government. After fourteen years of Tory rule, Britain often feels like a country where nothing works any more.

It’s not just the long NHS waiting lists or the schools literally collapsing due to faulty concrete used in their construction. It’s not just the economic cost of Brexit, becoming more apparent every month as the labour force shrinks and British exporters give up in the face of new bureaucratic obstacles to trade. It’s not just the underfunding of local authorities, which has led all of them severely to cut services and several to declare themselves bankrupt. It’s not just the 440,000 backlog of unheard cases in the law courts, or the failing privatised railway companies, some of which even a Conservative government has had to take back into public ownership. It is all of these, and the more general sense that the government has simply run out of steam. The cost of living crisis — high prices, high taxes, high rents, high mortgage costs — has left the public out of love with their masters. Sunak’s performances in the House of Commons and in the media have become increasingly tetchy as his poll numbers fail to improve and his backbenchers grow more rebellious.

The cancelled swimming race in the Thames provided more than a fitting metaphor. The water company in question, Thames Water, was privatised by Margaret Thatcher in 1989 and its debts cancelled. After paying out £7.2 billion in dividends to its shareholders since then, its debts today total £15.6 billion and it has recently defaulted on payments. Meanwhile it has pumped at least seventy-two billion litres of sewage into the Thames since 2020 and been fined £35.7 million for pollution incidents in the last six years. Today it is close to bankruptcy, and the government has made contingency plans to renationalise it. Both its end, and the government’s, look nigh. •