Rare Rishi Sunak appearance rides wave of rightwing cheers | John Crace

He lives! He breathes! For the last couple of months Rishi Sunak has barely been seen. It’s as if he’s been held hostage by Tory party apparatchiks and only allowed out for half an hour once a week to take prime minister’s questions in the Commons. To make sure the damage he can do is strictly limited. His goal no longer to reinvigorate his party but to manage its decline. And even that looks to be beyond him. The latest Savanta opinion poll has the Tories winning just 69 seats at the next election and Rish! losing his.

But on Tuesday lunchtime we were treated to a bonus Sunak appearance. This time to make a statement on proposed changes to the immigration system. For Monday’s urgent question on strikes, almost no Tory backbenchers had bothered to turn up in the chamber. The NHS and the transport system gridlocked, nurses reduced to using food banks, inflation out of control, people having to choose between heating and eating. All this was apparently of little consequence to the Conservatives. Just minor everyday problems that barely affected ordinary people’s lives.

Immigration, on the other hand. Now that was the No 1 issue holding the country back. Stopping people having a decent Christmas. Sort out immigration and the whole country would be back on track. The UK would go rocketing back up the OECD table and the RMT and the RCN would be falling over themselves to agree below-inflation wage settlements. So the Tory benches were rammed. Fuller even than for the three-line whip of PMQs. This was the Conservatives’ last hope of salvation. To out-Ukip Ukip.

There were muted cheers when Rish! got to his feet. Sunak flashed a nervy smile and got to work. Immigration was a complex moral dilemma, he said. But it didn’t have to be. We’d spent far too long trying to balance the claims of genuine asylum seekers against immigrants arriving illegally. And we’d been far too generous. Too lenient. We’d let in way too many foreigners. Hell, even some of the foreigners we had let in thought there were far too many foreigners. Which is why they had gone home after Brexit. And why there were so many vacancies in low-paid industries. But that was another matter.

Rish! wanted everyone to know he could do tough. He might look like a pushover. A tech-bro softy. Someone who just wanted to be liked. But deep down he was steel. He could tell the Tory rightwingers what they wanted to hear. Foreigners, migrants, refugees. Call them what you want. At heart they were just invaders trying to take over the UK.

So he was going to put a stop to that. Anyone arriving in a small boat would be sent back to Albania. Even if they weren’t Albanian. Though some might get sent to Rwanda. Just because. The home secretary had to be given the chance to turn her dreams into reality. Who cared if the scheme was completely discredited? Had wasted hundreds of millions of pounds with no refugees deported to Kigali. You just had to believe. And Tory MPs did. They loved the Rwanda plan. Rish! was carried along on a wave of cheers.

Keir Starmer’s response was somewhat confused. Confusing even. He too wanted to be really, really tough on immigrants arriving illegally, but in an as yet unspecified, more compassionate way. They wouldn’t be allowed in the country – there should be no mistake about that – but they should be sent home in a way that made them feel as if the UK had done them a favour. With Labour we’d get five stars on Tripadvisor from any unwanted foreigners.

So Labour were both for and against the new government measures. They were against anything the courts might also be against but could not yet say whether they would be supporting the government. Starmer is terrified that what the country might actually want are ever more rightwing policies. And he doesn’t want to commit himself to not offering them as well. Sunak looked understandably puzzled.

It was left to the Scottish National party to offer some home truths. That there were no such entities as illegal immigrants: people couldn’t be illegal. And what did the government intend to do if its new laws contravened international law? Rish! merely shrugged.

There were a few Tory sceptics. Theresa May observed there was a difference between people-smuggling and human trafficking, and that the new proposals blurred the lines disturbingly. Sunak made no real effort to reassure her. Rather, he said that if a few enslaved people got caught up in the legislation it was a price worth paying.

Tim Loughton has been on quite the journey. He used to be an unreconstructed rightwinger who would have liked nothing better than to personally sink a few small boats. But now that he’s realised his Shoreham seat is odds on to fall to the Liberal Democrats or Labour at the next election he’s turned into a bleeding-heart liberal. These measures were all very well, but shouldn’t the government open up more safe routes for asylum seekers? Rish! ignored him. There were far too many already and we were turning down Afghans like it was going out of style.

The rest of the Tories were just thrilled. Unbothered whether any of the measures would be any more successful than previous attempts to stop people coming to the UK. Or to clear the backlog. What the hell? As long as we could make their lives a bit more shitty, then all was well.

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