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The Will of the People?

Updated: Jan 22

Afraid we’re going to have to get used to those words. Spilling out of the Prime Minister’s mouth. For months. That’s because they represent his last throw of the dice, as the Rwanda ructions move from a turbulent House of Commons to a defiant House of Lords. As our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, the battles we’ve seen so far are just for starters.

It’s known in the trade as parliamentary ping-pong. When the ermine mob changes a new law and the MPs change it back. And it goes up and down the long corridor. Again and again.

In the case of the government’s wish to deport asylum seekers to have their claims processed in Africa, the ping-pong ding-dong will border on a constitutional crisis.

That’s because it’s open to question whether the appointed folk in the upper house have the power not just to grumble about something suggested by the elected MPs, but actually chuck it out.

Which is where Rishi Sunak’s ‘will of the people’ bit kicks in. My guys were chosen by the voters, so in the end their word is law.

But this is where it gets a bit tricky.

Convention has it that the Lords simply can’t bin a piece of legislation that’s included in the manifesto on which the governing party was elected.

Problem being, when Boris Johnson got his stonking majority four-and-a-half years ago he’d yet to dream up his Rwanda wheeze.

Even as far back as his days as London mayor he was big on legacy things. Like Boris bikes. Or, famously, the flower-filled bridge across the Thames, that never got built.

Having made it to Number Ten on the back of ‘getting Brexit done’, he clearly also wanted to be remembered as the man who finally ‘stopped the boats’.

Without question, if the Rwanda mission had been swiftly and effectively accomplished, it would have put an awful lot of would-be migrants right off risking their lives in overcrowded dinghies.

But it didn’t work out that way.

Instead, while Johnson will go down in history as the partygate PM, it’s quite possible Sunak will be remembered as the Rwanda rubout.

At the beginning of last week a large and authoritative YouGov survey suggested the Tories were headed for a wipeout on the scale of the landslide that swept Tony Blair into power.

A few days later, as the commons psychodrama was unfolding, the same pollster found the Labour lead had ballooned to an eye-watering twenty-seven points. That’s up four, in a matter of days.

At that rate they’d have to redesign the commons chamber, as there wouldn’t be room for all those new MPs on the new government side.

Of course it won’t really come to that. Nor is it likely in the end to that the House of Lords will actually tear up the Rwanda bill.

They will, nonetheless repeatedly put in changes intended to soften it. Then, each time it comes back to the commons, Tory hardliners will have fresh goes at making it tougher still.

In the event, when these same people had the chance to ditch it altogether last week, on the grounds it was too weak, they bottled it.

But that was only because they recognised such a move could collapse the government itself, and they didn’t want to press the button on their own political suicide vests.

The fact remains, however, we are looking at months of toing and froing, generating endless headlines about the pickle the Conservatives have got themselves into over illegal migration.

Their campaign manager Isaac Levido was stating the obvious when he told colleagues that their dire ratings were: ‘Yet more evidence that when the party is bitterly, visibly divided, they lose support.’

Rarely has the old saying rang truer, that when you’re in a hole stop digging. And while it’s too late for that, the axiom’s rider resonates yet harder.

‘Even when you stop digging, you are still in a hole.’

Rishi Sunak might come across these days as, understandably in the circs, a bit tetchy. But he’s nobody’s fool.

And while he has allowed himself to bet the farm on the stop the boats mantra, he’s smart enough to recognise this problem is of his own making.

We now know he had misgivings from the start about the Rwanda project, on grounds of cost and viability. All he had to do when he got to Number Ten was quietly ditch it.

Instead, he could have bigged up the unquestionable progress he has already made in this area. Thanks to his diligent outreach, channel crossing are now down by over a third. Which is a result.

Also, he has clearly banged enough heads together at the Home Office to get them to make serious inroads into the huge backlog of unprocessed asylum claims.

There’s a dispute about exactly how much they have managed. But, once again, there’s no doubt they’ve made a start.

Unfortunately for the Tories, voter indignation about the cost of accommodating people, while they’re waiting to know if they can stay, fits into a wider, unpalatable narrative.

Resources are stretched, so they just have to wait their turn. Same as if any of us wants justice – all in good time. Victims of the Post Office/Horizon scandal will bitterly attest to that.

And you have a niggling health problem? That needs hospital treatment? Yet again, just join the queue.

All of which probably explains why Keir Starmer looks to be headed for the top job. His rhetorical panache is second to just about everyone’s. And his plans for government are anything but clear.

But it’s a very plausible hypothesis that, assuming he does get in at the election, his victory will be put down to one simple fact. The voters were determined to punish the Conservatives.

No wonder the Chancellor is having a go at yet another last throw of the dice, muttering about lovely, juicy tax cuts, both in the spring and the autumn.

Probably now though too little, too late. Such a shame, from Sunak’s point of view, that he hasn’t been banging on for months about the state of the economy.

Though the fall in inflation has been stuttering a little of late, it’s the overwhelming success story that he could have been selling for ages.

After all, the exhaustively analysed evidence is irrefutable.

While a few thousand people added a UK population of nearly seventy million doesn’t strike everyone as a crisis, stumping up for the lecky/mortgage/rent is something we all have to worry about.

And, while prices were rocketing, it’s felt like a dog’s life for far too many of us.

But, bless ’em, our furry friends do manage to sort their own problems remarkably often.

On New Year’s Day a springer spaniel named Merlin had some kind of fit, and ran away from his front garden in Cumbria.

His distraught owner, Daniel Horsley, organised a huge search party, involving a hundred people using drones and thermal-imaging cameras.

All to no avail. Until, sixteen hours later, the dear little pooch just found his own way home. Perfectly happy, and quite unharmed.

Will Rishi Sunak get that lucky? In a few months time? More likely, it seems, we’ll have collectively decided that under his management the nation’s gone to the dogs.


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