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Rishi Sunak Insists No 10 Is Delivering But Tory MPs Doubt He Can Stop The Boats

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at a Home Office control centre in Kent (Alamy)

3 min read

Rishi Sunak tried to wrestle back control of the narrative with a trip to Kent on Monday where he insisted the government was delivering on his 'stop the boats' pledge.

A dispute between the Cabinet Office and Covid inquiry, over whether private correspondence between then prime minister Boris Johnson and senior members of his government should be disclosed, dominated Westminster last week. It is unlikely to die down anytime soon having escalated into unprecedented legal action. 

In an apparent bid to get on the front foot in the face of awkward questions over whether Johnson and Covid continue to distract from the government's work of today, Sunak today gave a press conference at an asylum processing centre in Dover where he insisted his pledge to eradicate illegal Channel crossings was "starting to work"

But there is a feeling among some Conservative MPs the Prime Minister's speech was light on substance and heavy on rhetoric as he scrambles to shift the conversation back to his agenda. 

"He didn't really have anything to say," said one former government minister.

Sunak announced that the number of small boats arriving in the UK had fallen 20 per cent compared with the same period last year, and that arrivals from Albania had fallen 90 per cent year-on-year thanks to the UK's returns agreement with the government in Tirana. The PM also said that the government had procured a further two barges to house up to 1,000 migrants, on top of the vessel secured off the coast of Dorset announced in April. 

MPs PoliticsHome spoke to on Monday worried that significantly reducing the number of English Channel crossings – nevermind stopping them altogether – remains very difficult for the PM, and that he risks backing himself into a corner by making an impossible promise that eclipses any relative success. 

He faced awkward questions about whether the 20 per drop had actually been caused by windy weather in the Channel deterring smugglers, rather than government policy.

"There are many things I can control, the weather is not one of them. So, I wish it was so,” Sunak retorted. 

Sunak has not said when he intends to achieve his 'stop the boats' ambition by, and a Downing Street spokesperson said today that they would not put a "hard time scale" on fulfilling the pledge.

Many thousands of migrants are expected to attempt to reach UK shores in small boats this summer and there is a belief among many Conservative MPs that until the UK agrees further Albania-style returns agreements with European countries - with French President Emmanueal Macron in particular - it will be tough for Sunak to come close to hitting his target.

"It's a bloody hard problem to solve, especially if France doesn't want to help out," one former secretary of state told PoliticsHome.

A Downing Street spokesperson said the government was in talks with other countries about new returns agreements with the UK, but wouldn't go into details about which governments it was talking to and what progress if any had been made.

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