OPINION - Rishi Sunak should stop trying to solve problems and start managing them instead


Designing solutions to problems sounds all well and good. But the problem, as former US State Department official Richard Fontaine once pointed out, is that not all problems can actually be solved. Sometimes, problems have to be managed.

Skilled leaders understand this instinctively. But even they sometimes perceive a greater political advantage in being seen to be doing something rather than nothing. Indeed, as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton subscribed to the “get caught trying” school of foreign policy.

Yet this comes with obvious downside risks, from raised expectations to nuclear annihilation. For what it's worth, one of my favourite mantras is: "Don't just do something. Stand there." Though I often can't resist.

Rishi Sunak faces a political problem when it comes to illegal immigration. At the start of the year, the prime minister made 'stopping the boats' one of his five key priorities. As a result, he raised (and through his actions continues to raise) the salience of immigration without any guarantee he can deliver on that promise. Worse still, he gives the impression of being shaped only by external events.

Following the Supreme Court's rejection of his flagship Rwanda policy, in which some asylum seekers would be sent to the East African nation, Sunak has returned with emergency legislation which he hopes will circumvent the court's ruling. In doing so, he has sprinted directly into another – and frankly more intractable problem – the Conservative parliamentary party.

In a first-past-the-post electoral system, political parties are necessarily coalitions. Consequently, Labour is home to both John McDonnell and Alison McGovern. The Tories make space for both Caroline Noakes and Miriam Cates. While even the much smaller Liberal Democrats once managed to pretend that Charles Kennedy shared anything in common with Jeremy Browne.

Coalition dynamics are generally problems to be managed. Dextrous political leaders seek to avoid confrontation, ultimatums and any question of 'back me or sack me' unless absolutely necessary. Sunak has decided to take another path. It is fraught with risk while providing no guarantee of success.

First, because the Rwanda agreement is peak performative politics. Not, of course, for the people who may be sent there, should flights ever go ahead. But because Kigali only has capacity in the hundreds. Nor is there evidence it will act as a deterrent.

Then there is the Tory Party. The right doesn't think the government's new plan goes far enough. Meanwhile, the moderate One Nation group seems only to be going along because it is relieved Sunak hasn't committed to leaving the European Convention on Human Rights and fears who might replace him should a vacancy at the top emerge.

As for the news conference itself, Sunak looked frankly pissed off (I checked with subs, I am allowed to use that phrase) to be there. With Tory MPs for being split. With journalists for not writing what he wants. And I can sympathise. I try to keep things cordial at work but my colleagues can generally tell when I'm in a bad mood (or more precisely, when I've not eaten lunch). But the difference is, I'm not looking for votes to stay in a job.

Speaking of voters, research by More in Common finds that despite the public being more likely than not to support the Rwanda policy, it is by no means hugely popular. And here's the kicker from Luke Tryl

"When asked whether they think the policy will work to deter crossings the public is far more likely to say that it won’t (51 per cent) than will (34 per cent). This poses a risk to the Conservatives of raising the salience of a problem that the public doesn’t think they will fix — potentially driving their voters to populist parties such as Reform UK.

Sunak wants to solve the immigration problem while soothing a fractious parliamentary party. At present, he is managing neither.

In the comment pages, Ben Judah warns that Ukraine is in real danger and Vladimir Putin’s strength is growing. George Chesterton says school is no place for an Israel-Gaza culture war — let’s not weaponise children. While Melanie McDonagh reflects on rats leaving a sinking ship, and why Robert Jenrick quitting is bad news for Sunak.And finally, prepare to have your inner child unleashed. Nick Clark gives the full five stars to Tom Hanks's The Moonwalkers at the Lightroom.

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