Two days ago, we discovered that the Metropolitan Police are tough on parties and tough on the causes of parties. Today, we have the Government announcing the most eye-catching change to immigration policy in living memory. Flying asylum seekers 4,500 miles to Rwanda to be processed may not be cheap or simple. But it is a way of changing the headlines.
Or is it? Downing Street weren’t expecting to receive fines on Tuesday, and this announcement has long been planned (even if it may have been a surprise to Richard Harrington, Minister for Refugees). It is a prime opportunity for Priti Patel to join Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, in the spotlight. And she hasn’t even had to break the law to do so.
Talking of fines, it has not failed to catch our attention here at ConHome that Ms Patel has been noticeably quiet in supporting the Prime Minister compared to the rest of the Cabinet. Whilst Home Office sources have suggested she “stands fully behind” Johnson, she has not Tweeted that statement out.
Meanwhile, neither Kit Malthouse, Minister for Policing, nor Suella Braverman, the Attorney General, have given the Prime Minister their public backing. The suspicion one has is that the ministers responsible for upholding the law are somewhat uncomfortable in defending their two colleagues being fined for breaking it.
Then again, Dominic Raab has given Johnson his backing – even if Lord Wolfson, a fellow Minister in the Department for Justice, resigned. Perhaps Raab’s double hatting as the Prime Minister’s Deputy gives him some more leeway, but the point still stands. Can those enforcing the law be seen to be defending those breaking it? Has Johnson lost the authority to pronounce on law and order?
This is not an existential issue. Sir Kier Starmer has already suggested this announcement is an attempt by the Prime Minister to “distract from his own lawbreaking”. Lucy Powell, the Shadow Secretary for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport, has said this is more to do with Johnson “dealing with [his] own sinking boat”. Mark Drakeford, First Minister for Wales, has more plainly called it a “cynical distraction.”
Certainly, the Prime Minister’s opponents are wrong to suggest this is a policy that has come from nowhere to distract from the recent headlines. But with the Opposition already wanting to boost their credentials in the tough on crime stakes, attacks on Johnson’s credibility will not go away.
That is especially the case if, a appears almost certain, the Prime Minister and others in Number 10 receive more fines in the coming days and weeks. If Patel, Malthouse, and Braverman are already uncomfortable with defending him over the singing of ‘Happy Birthday’ and the consuming of a salad in company, then they will only be more so if worse incidents emerge.
With Labour already holding a nine-point lead on law and order (according to one recent poll), and with Starmer keen to make this an issue on which the next election is fought, questions over the Government’s authority on crime and security are going to become more urgent. And that will be the case whatever the Metropolitan Police and Sue Gray decide.