Picture Credit: Yui Mok - WPA Pool/Getty Images

Speak loudly, and carry a small stick

The Tory Party under Rishi Sunak has been all bark and no bite

Artillery Row

One very strange feature of this Government, for those who’s sad duty it is to report closely on it, is the gulf between its actual record and the hysterical tone of much of the coverage.

Rishi Sunak is about as technocratic a prime minister as it is possible to imagine. Even in the face of mounting political pressure and increasingly severe failings in the United Kingdom’s political economy, his focus (whenever he gets the choice) is always on tinkering at the edges and trying to uphold the status quo.

The Conservatives only have themselves to blame

His big set-piece speech to the Conservative Party Conference in October certainly opened boldly, condemning the way that Britain has been governed for the past 30 years. But the substance was a complete non-sequitur: scrapping HS2, overhauling A Levels, and trying (very badly) to ban smoking.

On immigration, his critics will point to the Rwanda Scheme. But notwithstanding that such policies are increasingly being explored in other countries (and so can hardly be called ‘extremist’), such attacks miss the fact that his focus on small boats is an attempt to draw attention away from his policies on legal migration, which as Blob-ish as they come.

Just the other week, he and James Cleverly managed to get the Migration Advisory Committee to counsel against scrapping the graduate visa – a policy it really, really doesn’t like – by framing the question in terms of maintaining exactly the same number of international students as now.

More broadly, as a creature of the Treasury the Prime Minister is entirely at ease with mass immigration, which has always been the surest short-term way to prop up dubiously-productive businesses and universities and pad the GDP figures.

Even on Rwanda, I’ve had it from government insiders that Sunak was a few months ago privately reassuring ministers that they wouldn’t have to implement it, suggesting he hoped the Bill would be killed off by the House of Lords.

So whence all the hysterical coverage? Well, in truth the Conservatives only have themselves to blame. The idea that this is a government of the radical right is an illusion, but an illusion that ministers and journalists have tacitly collaborated in peddling. As I recently explained:

Populism is one of those political words that conceals as much as it illuminates… But one version of it I’ve found useful when writing about the Conservative party is its current habit – on issue after issue – of speaking loudly while carrying a very small stick.

On issue after issue, the Conservatives have resorted to talking a big game to try and cover for the lack of a substantial policy programme on the things that matter most to right-leaning voters. Indeed this has almost been baked in to the very structure of government, with successive home secretaries appointed to appease the right whilst other departments (principally Business, Education, and the Treasury) undermine any serious effort to get a grip on immigration.

Politicians and the press are engaged in a mutually-beneficial game of let’s pretend

We can see it on the policy side, too. Last August, the Government announced a significant reform to how early release works. Instead of qualifying automatically upon having served half their sentence, as previously, the threshold was raised to two-thirds.

On paper, that sounds great – I’m sure we’ve all seen story after story about someone who committed a horrible crime being let out after an absurdly short spell inside. 

But it was all smoke and mirrors. The only immediate consequence was to spark panic in a prison service that was already grappling with an acute shortage of places – a shortage which has for years led judges to hand down lenient sentences. In the weeks before Sunak announced the general election, the press reported that ministers have quietly extended an emergency scheme to let people out early, and that chief constables have been advised to pause “low priority” arrests. 

Likewise, innumerable promises to crack down on the use of hotels by asylum seekers have come and gone, because the Government refuses to bite the bullet and invest in a purpose-built immigration detention estate.

You can see why it might suit ministers to have progressive commentators howling about rule by the extreme right than acknowledging the truth: that they have ended up being soft on immigration and crime because of a chronic refusal to face down vested interests or deliver adequate capital spending. 

But such vibes-based reporting leads to vibes-based politics, and that’s bad for democracy. Voters can’t make an informed decision, and parties aren’t forced to offer them a meaningful choice, if politicians and the press are engaged in a mutually-beneficial game of let’s pretend.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover