The fate of the Conservative party merges with tragedies of ancient Greece

Backbench Conservatives are frustrated and unhappy – again

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at a press conference in London, on December 5. AFP
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The writings of ancient Greek dramatists and philosophers more than two millennia ago can often sum up just about every predicament facing the modern world. The phrase which comes to mind when surveying the bizarre landscape of British politics this Christmas is very glum. It is: “Those whom the gods wish to destroy, first they make mad.”

For the ancient Greeks the phrase was applied to individuals, but right now it sums up an even more peculiar political drama at the heart of the British Conservative party.

Some of them seem determined to unseat yet another of their own tribe, the Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. That’s because his action on migration has failed, at least so far. Instead there have been increasingly desperate attempts to deport asylum seekers who turn up in small boats on British beaches.

The Sunak plan involves sending them to the African country of Rwanda, and it has been rejected by British courts as unlawful. Even so, the failed plan has cost British taxpayers tens of millions of pounds, without a single successful deportation of anyone to Rwanda. The joke at Westminster is that more British government ministers have been flown to the Rwandan capital Kigali than deported migrants, but the undermining of yet another Conservative prime minister by his own MPs is not a joke.

It could lead to a leadership challenge early in 2024, an election year. The current turmoil therefore could mean Britain having its sixth Conservative prime minister since the Brexit vote of 2016.

But before we get to the issues of the collective chaos in the party that has been in power at Westminster for the past 13 years, we need to understand a little of the complex migration issue. The decision of the UK to leave the EU was partly motivated by some voters resenting the free movement of European workers into Britain. Many were seasonal labourers. Some picked apples in Kent or cabbages in Norfolk, or they filled jobs in social care that were unattractive to British workers. Or they were skilled workers and students who came to the UK for a taste of British life. But when Brexit happened, many EU workers and students found the bureaucracy involved in coming to the UK difficult to negotiate.

The Sunak government created a powerful issue by claiming they would somehow “Stop The Boats.” They haven’t

The demand from employers to fill skill shortages and job vacancies did not change, however. Instead of EU workers, the vacancies have subsequently often been filled by a massive influx of non-European workers, including tens of thousands from India and west Africa.

Legal net migration figures have hit record highs of around 700,000. Voters who resent migration have continued to be resentful at this political failure. Cue shock and horror in British newspapers and Westminster.

Instead of Brexit decreasing the number of migrants, it appears to have contributed to their increase. The political issue trumpeted so loudly by Conservative ministers and MPs, has clearly not been “solved” by Brexit or anything else. Government ministers have no one else to blame but themselves, although they have tried. They criticise British courts even though the role of judges and lawyers has largely been confined to a tiny part of this mess.

That role concerns the relatively small number of asylum seekers coming on those small boats from France.

Instead of placing this rather sad traffic by criminal gangs in its proper perspective, the Sunak government created a really powerful issue by claiming they would somehow “Stop The Boats.” They haven’t. The weather, always cold and with rough seas in December, has stopped some boats. But government policy – to send boat people to Rwanda – does not seem to have achieved much except in making headlines, making work for lawyers and the courts, and stoking resentment about an unsolved issue.

The courts have prevented deportations on the basis that Rwanda is not a safe country. It has – to be polite – historically a mixed record on human rights. Mr Sunak’s response has been to argue that the House of Commons should simply declare Rwanda to be safe. Even some prominent Conservatives have suggested that this is itself mad.

It's like the British parliament declaring that dogs are cats. But the chaos continues. A large section of the Conservative party appears to be considering whether or not to get rid of Mr Sunak and finding another suitable – or unsuitable, depending on your views – leader to take them into next year’s general election.

Rivals are jockeying for position. Backbench Conservatives are frustrated and unhappy. Again. They undermined Theresa May, then got rid of Boris Johnson. They selected Liz Truss as prime minister and she lasted seven weeks before they got rid of her too. Now it may be Rishi Sunak’s turn. To lose one prime minister is unfortunate. To lose two is careless. To lose five since 2016 would truly be madness, and a bizarre exercise in political blood letting worthy of the dramatic tragedies of the ancient Greeks.

Published: December 12, 2023, 7:00 AM