How Rishi Sunak's Obsession With 'Wedge Issues' Risks Backfiring

The prime minister wants to draw dividing lines between Labour and the Tories on everything from climate change to immigration.
Small boat crossing and rising NHS waiting lists have presented Rishi Sunak with a major headache.
Small boat crossing and rising NHS waiting lists have presented Rishi Sunak with a major headache.
Damon Scheleur/HuffPost

If Rishi Sunak was planning to properly switch off from politics during his holiday in California, the last week has surely put paid to that.

It was supposed to be “small boats week”, when the government would set out what it was doing to realise the prime minister’s ambition of stopping migrant Channel crossings, while also attacking Labour’s stance on the issue.

In reality, however, it was a disaster, with Number 10′s carefully-constructed communications strategy being disrupted by bogus claims that asylum seekers could be deported to Ascension Island followed by a row over whether they should just “fuck off back to France” instead.

Then on Thursday it was revealed that the number of migrants who have crossed the Channel since 2018 had passed 100,000.

And to top off the government’s latest week from hell, all 39 of the migrants who had been placed on the Bibby Stockholm barge had to be evacuated yesterday - after less than a week on board - after legionella bacteria was found in the water supply.

No wonder Tory deputy chair Lee Anderson conceded that on immigration, the party “has failed” to achieve its objectives.

Nevertheless, Sunak still sees immigration as a so-called “wedge issue” that can be used to put Labour on the wrong side of public opinion.

The same goes for climate change, where the prime minister has hinted at watering down the government’s green policies while trying to paint Keir Starmer as a crazed eco-extremist.

According to former Conservative adviser Luke Tryl, Sunak is taking an enormous risk which may end up simply sealing his fate with the electorate.

Tryl is now the director of More in Common, which carries out opinion polling and focus groups to assess the public mood.

According to the group’s latest research, climate change comes third behind the NHS and the cost of living in the list of top issues for voters.

And the public are four times more likely to say the government is not doing enough to deal with climate change than to say they are doing too much.

On small boats, meanwhile, More in Common identified a high level of frustration among the public that the government keeps promising to deliver on the issue while failing to meet their promise.

Separate private polling seen by HuffPost UK suggests that more than a third of voters believe that no government will be able to stop the boats if those on board are sufficiently determined to make it to Britain.

The events of the last week are likely to have done nothing to alter that perception.

Tryl told HuffPost UK: “The problem with wedges is that it’s very easy to end up on the wrong side of them.

“If the Conservatives are able to convince the electorate they’ll do net-zero transition sensibly and show real progress on tackling Channel crossings they’ll be rewarded by the electorate.

“But there is instead a real danger the Conservatives end up instead appearing anti-green and failing to deliver on small boats, threatening to make the party’s already perilous electoral position even worse.”

“The problem with wedges is that it’s very easy to end up on the wrong side of them”

In a further blow to Sunak this week, new figures from NHS England revealed that waiting lists have now hit 7.6 million, the highest number ever recorded.

That is despite the PM’s promise in January to bring them down.

Tryl suggested that this is a far more significant failure in the eyes of the public than either stopping the boats or tackling climate change.

He said: “Neither [small boats or climate change] will matter very much if the government haven’t yet got a grip on the NHS and the cost of living.”

Sunak is due back from his family holiday in the coming days.

Unless he can convince voters that his government will deal with their most pressing concerns, he’ll find he has much time to devote to foreign travel after the next election.


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