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Rearranging the Deckchairs?


In the war of the words Rishi Sunak’s been on a winning streak lately. Rwanda bill passed, defence spending up, and last week’s sick-note culture clampdown garnering headlines. Tick tick tick then. Except that, as our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, nemesis looms. The town hall elections, just days away, could yet finish him off.

With the Conservatives confidently predicted to lose hundreds and hundreds of councillors, and maybe a couple of metro mayors, backbench unease will likely reach fever pitch.

All of a sudden bigger considerations about protecting the free world against Russian aggression, addressing concerns about illegal immigration and getting the jobless back to work will fizzle out.

In their place a tight Tory focus on a bare-knuckle struggle for survival. Countless Rishi resets have produced diddley-squat, the panic-stricken reasoning will go. So it’s the man himself who’s got to go.

Though the idea borders on insane in the real world, Westminster is a pressure cooker whose lid can sometimes blow off.

But unfortunately for those Tory MPs whose fears and frustrations might be pushing them beyond boiling point, the real world will already have had its say.

Party mouthpieces will naturally try to downplay the damage, on the grounds that local elections are not so much about the national brand as parish pump issues like bin collections and potholes in the roads.

It’s questionable how many voters will specifically make the connection between crumbling local services and the Tory government’s austerity programme after the financial crash of sixteen years ago.

But the decision to cut national funding for town halls by getting on for half was always going to have profound knock-on implications.

And, even if that ultimate cause hasn’t necessarily lodged in the electorate’s collective mind, the effects undoubtedly have. So, with the Conservatives in power now for fourteen years, things are hardly looking up for them.

It’s not just that Labour remains consistently miles ahead, it’s also that two-thirds of those who backed the Tories last time round have changed sides.

Also, amazingly, the latest YouGov poll suggests some thirteen per cent of those same former Conservative supporters are now willing the party’s extinction.

Oh, and one other thing. As well as the local contests there’ll be a by-election on Thursday to replace the Tory MP Scott Benton, chucked out for dodgy dealings of a financial nature.

His majority in Blackpool was only a few thousand. So, what with that and his own tarnished reputation, the seat’s as good as lost. Something else to send shivers down former colleagues’ spines.

Meantime, it’s worth taking a closer look at the brave new world Sunak’s been promising.

First off, Rwanda, which he claims will finally, as per the slogan, stop the boats. But which in reality is unlikely to provide any proof that it’s doing any such thing this side of the election. Or, very possibly, ever, in fact.

That’s because the endless delays to date have meant that no one’s going to be jetted off anywhere for three months at a minimum. And maybe longer, as Rwandan elections scheduled for July could hinder the process yet further.

There’s also the distinct possibility of legal challenges, courtesy the European Convention on Human Rights. And knock-on courtroom tussles initiated by the civil service mandarins’ union if ministers tell them to ignore its rulings.

But essentially the project is an exercise in psychological warfare. The theory being that, faced with the threat of being put on a one-way flight to a country whose human rights record is open to question, asylum seekers will just stop coming.

Even if all other obstacles somehow, miraculously, melt away, however, we’re unlikely to know this side of the election whether the plan has actually worked.

Keir Starmer’s mocked the Tories for giving Rwanda ‘hundreds of millions of pounds for nothing in return’.

And, as a Labour government would simply bin the project, his suggestion that the African country’s President saw Sunak coming ‘a mile off’ might have some resonance.

Certainly the official estimate, that we’re shelling out more than half a billion for the privilege of deporting just a few hundred people, might well suggest the guy’s having a laugh. At our inordinate expense.

Word is that the Home Office originally felt bounced into agreeing to the scheme, while the Foreign Office too went to some lengths to scupper it.

The sharpest jibe, however, came from the legal beagle Lord Carlile, who led the charge against the bill in the upper house. Instead of banging on about stopping the boats, he suggested, Rishi Sunak really should ‘stop the boasts’.

A charge, incidentally, that might also fit the Prime Minister’s promise to increase defence spending to two-and-a-half per cent of national income by 2030.

He says it’s time we put our munitions manufacturing industry on ‘a war footing’, and in the face of Russian aggression that sounds like no bad thing.

It’s also doing our bit to counter Donald Trump’s threat to back off from NATO if its members don’t pay their way.

Even while the man’s in the dock accused of all sorts of grubby crimes his power is pervasive. Witness his leaning on his chum in the House of Representatives to delay a huge and vitally-needed aid package for Ukraine.

We can but hope the hardware will arrive in time to at least hold back the forces of evil.

But in regard to British military spending, it might pay to remind ourselves that the higher target was actually Boris Johnson’s idea, later downgraded by Sunak himself.

We could also bear in mind that the timeframe he’s suggesting spans the next parliament, not this one. In other words, it’s almost certainly not down to him but Keir Starmer. Cue a line from Shakespeare’s already half-crazed King Lear:

‘I will do such things. What they are yet I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the Earth!’ Golly gosh, we have been warned.

In fact, Labour has also promised to boost defence spending to the same level when we can afford it. Which is a perhaps more pragmatic way of saying much the same thing.

In addition, Starmer’s pledged to renationalise the railways. By, once again, the fiscally prudent route of simply waiting until existing franchises run out. Thus saving us having to shell out a penny in compensation.

How will the idea play with the punters? Just ask anybody who’s ever travelled in an overcrowded, run down and annoyingly delayed train and you’ve got your answer.

The only risk for Labour is that the Tories will nick the idea and claim it for their own. Watch this space.

Daresay a fair few folk have also been watching out for an auction in Wiltshire that harks back to the headline in this article. Among items under the hammer was the gold pocket watch that once belonged to the richest man on the Titanic.

Big businessman John Jacob Astor went down with the ship, taking the little clock with him, and it was seven days before he and it were fished out of the North Atlantic.

The timepiece was later lovingly restored to full working order. And has been confidently expected to fetch around a hundred and fifty grand.

Mr Astor himself was last seen alive on the bridge, having a farewell ciggie. At which point, presumably, he wasn’t too fussed about whether smoking is bad for you …



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