The Prime Minister knows he has to stop the rising tide of small boats crossing the Channel to stand any chance of victory at the end of next year. But senior aides fear a Tory wipeout in late 2024 if he goes to the country after a summer in which thousands more illegal immigrants have landed. They have told him he must achieve clear signs of progress by this autumn or start gearing up his team for an election the following May.
A source said: “Realistically, Rishi has got six months to start making some serious gains from his plan to tackle illegal migration.
“There’s bound to be thousands more arriving this summer but if that’s followed by some progress then he’ll have some time to play with.
“But he can’t afford to risk waiting until the latest realistic date, October 2024, if there’s any chance that will be on the back of a second summer of migration chaos.”
Mr Sunak has staked his reputation on tough measures to stop the migrants.
His Illegal Migration Bill aims to make it impossible for anyone who comes to the UK unlawfully to stay in the country.
He hopes it will allow him to send asylum seekers arriving in boats to Rwanda, a policy that faces stiff opposition in the courts.
Tory MPs, particularly those in “Red Wall” seats snatched from Labour in the 2019 election, regularly warn they are under intense pressure from voters to stop the arrival of cross-Channel migrants.
One insider said: “The PM is throwing everything at solving the crisis right now. He desperately needs a quick win – whether it is cutting the number of boats or starting the flights to Rwanda.
“Failure to make inroads by the end of this summer will leave him with a stark choice. He’ll have to decide whether to start planning for an election in May next year to avoid having to hold one the following autumn after yet another summer in which thousands land on our shores.”
A Home Office source said: “The widespread abuse of our modern slavery system is unquestionable and the scheme is in much need of reform.
“Illegal arrivals are abusing our country’s generosity and taking the public for a ride. This Government won’t allow it to go on.”
Mr Sunak’s readiness to risk controversy with his deportation measures and determination to secure an election majority has convinced MPs – including staunch supporters of former PM Boris Johnson – the Government has not given up hope on staying in power.
A key Johnson ally said: “They are not managing defeat… They are going for broke. They are pulling out the stops.”
A senior Conservative MP welcomed the PM’s tough stance, saying: “We’ve woken up to the need to talk about what keeps voters up at night.”
Champions of Mr Johnson want Mr Sunak’s landslide-winning predecessor to put his campaigning skills behind the PM to secure a fifth successive Tory election victory.
Speculation that Mr Johnson could return to the top job before the next election is rapidly fading and Mr Sunak is being urged to reach out to him.
It is reported that Tory local election leaflets in several key areas do not include pictures of Mr Sunak but instead feature Mr Johnson and figures including Home Secretary Suella Braverman.
A Boris supporter warned the PM would be “foolish” to alienate Mr Johnson – adding: “He is gold dust at campaigning.”
Both Downing Street and Conservative MPs will have their eyes firmly fixed on opinion polls in the coming months to see if Mr Sunak’s migration policy sways voters.
The latest polling by Omnisis shows 35 per cent think his plans will have no effect on the number of illegal Channel crossings.
However, 44 per cent think the measures will stop the journeys – or cut the number by at least 25 per cent.
But the research also shows Mr Sunak must drag the party up an electoral mountain to stand any chance of staying in power.
Four out of 10 people (41 per cent) say they would vote for Labour if an election was held tomorrow. This puts Sir Keir Starmer’s party 19 points ahead of the Conservatives on just 22 per cent.
And the polling shows the country is divided on how the Prime Minister is performing, with 35 per cent approving and another 35 per cent disapproving.
Tories are pinning their hopes on the next election boiling down to a straight choice between Mr Sunak and Sir Keir, with MPs upbeat about the country choosing to keep the Tory leader in Downing Street.
However, the pollsters found 41 per cent believed Sir Keir would be the best prime minister, with just 29 per cent backing Mr Sunak and 30 per cent undecided. Crucially, only 29 per cent think the Tories can win the next election, with 43 per cent believing they cannot.
Lord Mandelson, an architect of New Labour, also cast doubt on the Conservatives achieving a 1992-style victory. That year saw John Major unexpectedly secure another five years in office when he beat Labour’s Neil Kinnock at the polls.
Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, he said: “In 1992 you had Tories who believed in themselves, who believed in their government, who were hungry for power.”