The appearance of a lectern outside No 10 has generally been a harbinger of doom for Conservative prime ministers. They are the absent ravens, the deathwatch beetles, the phantom knocks at the door that presage the death of yet another Tory ministry. Amid one of the most difficult weeks of his premiership, Rishi Sunak got behind the Downing Street lectern and the ghosts of Cameron, May, Johnson and Truss laughed.
Mr Sunak probably hoped the announcements would be an exorcism. This Bill, he claimed, would “finally end the merry-go-round of legal challenges”, would “restore a sense of fairness”. Rainbows and lollipops for all via primary statutory instruments!
Ironically, the same person who popularised the faux-approachability of the straight-to-camera lectern chat is the real spectre lurking over the chasm where a practicable immigration policy should be. In truth, this was a speech caused by Sir Tony Blair – and occasionally delivered in the manner of Uncle Tone, too. “I wanna get it on the statute books in record time” insisted the Prime Minister, with Blairite upward inflection.
‘STOP THE BOATS’ was emblazoned like a chalk circle or crucifix in front of the Prime Minister, as if it would be efficacious in and of itself. Somewhere near Calais, people traffickers will say “it’s on the lectern” and give up and go home.
Despite the prominence of the slogan, much of Rishi’s rhetoric was about the Supreme Court and the primacy of Parliament. “Parliament is sovereign”, he repeated again and again as if it were a Latin prayer designed to exorcise the lurking influences of Blair: the power of the Supreme Court, the totality of judicial review, Europe etc.
Chronicles of Narnia
“Do you see the reality of what is happening here?” asked Beth Rigby of Sky News in the Q&A. “If you can’t succeed, is it election time?” Rigby’s perma-gloomy tone of voice can sometimes be jarring but on Thursday it made a fitting accompaniment to the Government’s woes; imagine Puddleglum the Marshwiggle from The Chronicles of Narnia in broadcast journalist form.
The PM’s answers veered between tetchiness and extreme self-delusion. Anushka Asthana of ITV wondered whether the parliamentary vote on the emergency legislation would be treated as a “vote of confidence in your government”. This seemed undeniable. Yet the Prime Minister attempted a hopeful slant on his current position between Scylla and Charybdis.
Actually, he said, the vote was about public confidence in Parliament to deliver a popular immigration policy. If anything, this presented a bigger dilemma for the Labour Party, which didn’t even have an immigration policy.
Yes, you heard that right. An ungovernable Conservative Party in a neverending state of war with itself is a headache for… Keir Starmer. Even with his command of the dark arts, that’s a spin that would make Alastair Campbell blush.