September 26 2023

Exit bear, pursued by…bear

Exit bear, pursued by…bear

Every prime minister needs to be prepared to be unpopular. No head of government, particularly of a state as fractious and divided as the United Kingdom now is, stays afloat in the polls for long.  Even the most talented and able tend to plunge in the polls once their honeymoon period is over, the electorate bringing them back to reality with a brutal bump.

Liz Truss, the newest occupant of Downing Street, has had a bumpier introduction than most. There was the death of the Queen, followed by Vladimir Putin rattling his nuclear weapons, while a public tired of blonde Conservative prime ministers has viewed her incoming premiership with scepticism. To Truss’ credit, she has faced the incoming storm stoically, telling interviewers that she is ‘prepared to be unpopular’ rather than just bend to public opinion.

But ignoring public opinion for the sheer hell of it is of no use. Governing needs to be done with a sense of purpose. Margaret Thatcher, despite putting the country on a path to deregulation and inequality, had such a sense. Truss, her mini-me, does not.  Thatcher had the economic nous to only offer tax cuts after establishing growth, and nor did she set aflame regulations with reckless abandon. In contrast, Truss seemingly wants to return the country to a Hobbesian state of nature. She plans to leave bankers and their bonuses to their own devices, to let companies frack up the countryside in pursuit of quick energy and even quicker profits.

None of these are popular moves. The country is still rightly sceptical of bankers unleashed, all too aware of what their greed did to the country last time round, while fracking is just another idea imported from America without any thought given to how it would work here. Unlike in America, we don’t have expansive plains, underlain by untapped reserves of oil. We have a green, small, densely populated landscape which fracking would devastate. Communities will be ruined in exchange for nothing – except for the oil executives and bankers, who will doubtless still find a way to get rich.

Nor is Truss confining her inadequate and unpopular policies to matters of economics and energy. For a brief moment, liberals will have been cheered by the departure of Priti Patel from the Home Office and from the front bench. Patel was a bully, whether in her dealings with colleagues like Sir Philip Putnam or in her crafting of Home Office policy. She lacked the ability and the temperament for high office, and it showed again and again. After Putnam resigned, the report that followed should have been the end of her career – a career that had already been resurrected once, after Theresa May fired her for holding unauthorised meetings with the Israeli government.

Sir Alex Allan’s report revealed a Home Secretary who screamed at staff, abused her colleagues, and was unable to come to grips with her remit. In any normal organisation, that would have been the end of her. Not so in Boris Johnson’s cabinet. He seemingly saw little wrong with her behaviour, later instructing his ministers and colleagues to ‘form a square around the Prittster.’ If she had brought some talent to the role, Johnson’s decision to keep her in office may have been regrettable, but at least cynically justifiable. But when it came to her mandate as secretary of state, she was, if anything, an even greater failure.

On the question of the Channel border crossings, her only solutions were illegal, immoral, or unfit for purpose – and more often than not, being all three. Using the Navy to turn back asylum seekers in dinghies and rafts was a tragic, disproportionate waste of resources, while the plot to use wave machines was like something out of a bad story written by a callous ten-year-old. But while the Home Office may have been able to head off that idea, the culmination of Patel’s woeful career was her creation of the Rwanda policy, forcibly transferring asylum seekers to one of the world’s poorest dictatorships. Even the bureaucracy of the Home Office, which internally despaired at the policy, could not turn her from this path.

Report after report showed Rwanda to not be a haven, but a hell. President Kagame’s regime has overseen political repression, arbitrary detention, and limits on free speech, while Rwandan society looks suspiciously at LGBT people. Despite all of this, Patel and her enabler, Johnson, were keen to send asylum seekers here, taking the view that doing anything was better than being seen to do nothing on the question of unlawful immigration.

Tragically, all of these policies seem likely to continue. Patel may now find herself ignominiously on the backbenches, but she may seek solace in the thought that her successor is going to carry on her legacy. Suella Braverman, who has been promoted from Attorney General, may be less personally reprehensible than Patel, but she is just a sugarcoated dose of the same unpleasant medicine.

More troubling, however, is the fact that not only is Braverman more obliging, but more capable. Her legal advice as Attorney General may have left much to be desired, but it likely reflected a political operator who was more interested in pursuing a political agenda than in offering a genuine, apolitical analysis of the law. She didn’t offer up opinions that were legally incoherent because she was incapable of doing otherwise, but because she wanted to ease her path to power. (This is to say nothing of the fact that court decisions that proved her wrong just gave the government another reason to declare judges to be ‘the enemies of the people’).

Putting in someone who is just as politically vicious as Patel, but more intelligent, is a canny decision on the part of Truss. Braverman does not carry the same baggage as Patel, and will probably be more conciliatory with the civil servants. With Patel, the Home Office was vocally resistant to the Rwanda policy, with some civil servants considering their position. So far, Braverman has not inspired the same opposition.  Nonetheless, if she brings a more delicate, nuanced approach to the role, she may be able to achieve what Patel couldn’t- flights of asylum seekers and immigrants taking off from the UK, bound for Kigali Airport.

What will confuse Truss, and possibly Braverman, is the fact that the nation is not as hostile to immigration as the government’s policies may suggest. This week’s report shows that as a whole, the UK population welcomes immigrants, seeing them as enhancing the UK’s quality of life, not degrading it. It may be that this polling reflects the fact that many people now believe we have control over immigration, and this semblance of control legitimises new arrivals. But it probably also means that the government will double down on its rhetoric against illegal entrants. Rather than acknowledge that refugees have no legal way of getting to the UK, and that the statistically insignificant number of people crossing the Channel are, more often than not, asylum seekers, Downing Street will stoke hostility towards them.

If we see the Home Office take this path, it will show that Truss is not prepared to be truly unpopular. A real maverick would engage with the question of asylum, appointing a Home Secretary who was prepared to own up to our international responsibilities and acknowledge our obligations to the poor and dispossessed. Truss might be prepared to be unpopular, but perhaps not like that.