Can Rishi Sunak deliver his promise to 'stop the boats' before a general election?

Rishi Sunak today outlined details of his Rwanda scheme ahead of a crunch vote in the Commons tonight. Credit: PA

Since the prime minister made his five promises to the public almost 18 months ago, it’s Rishi Sunak’s pledge to ‘stop the boats’ that has proven most tricky to deliver on.

His promise was definitive. Not to simply reduce the number of small boats crossing the English Channel. Not to increase the number of illegal immigrants deported from the UK. It was to stop the boats.

As Mr Sunak himself said: “No tricks… no ambiguity… we will either have achieved them or not."

The prime minister repeated his promise today: “Success is when the boats have stopped”.

So will his emergency Rwanda legislation, which has ping-ponged back and forth between MPs and the House of Lords for weeks, finally deliver on that pledge?

The prime minister has already missed one of his targets. He’d previously said flights to Rwanda would take off by the spring.

Today he admitted the first plane wouldn’t take off for at least “10-12 weeks” - which takes us into July, which by most people’s measure is firmly in the summer.

When questioned on why people should have confidence and trust in his ability to deliver on his pledge, Mr Sunak highlighted the fact that small boats crossings were down by 36% last year.

That may well be true, but the latest figures show crossings are up 24% compared to last year.

Mr Sunak has repeatedly said there is no "firm date" to meet his pledge to "stop the boats" and has said it will be for others to judge whether he’s delivering.

Many of the prime minister’s own cabinet colleagues have been forthcoming in offering a timeline.

The deputy prime minister, Oliver Dowden, said last year the government’s aim was to stop the boats “by the end of this Parliament”.

Robert Jenrick, then immigration minister, said the same thing.

Rishi Sunak’s priority, he said, was on “being able to deliver a regular rhythm, a drumbeat, of multiple flights a month over the summer and beyond because that's how you build a systematic deterrent and that’s how you stop the boats".

But by the time of the election, whenever the prime minister decides to hold it, many voters will use Mr Sunak’s clear, unambiguous framing to make their judgement on whether he’s managed to ‘stop the boats’.

And they may well judge that if even just a handful of small boats are still crossing the English Channel then the prime minister will have failed on his promise.

Have you heard our new podcast Talking Politics? Every week Tom, Robert and Anushka dig into the biggest issues dominating the political agenda…