Just Common Sense – the inside story behind today’s ‘small boats Bill’

In truth, the story which led to this Bill began more than three years ago in January 2020 when former minister Sir John Hayes first started discussing setting up a group of Tory MPs to push immigration issues and the culture wars. The publication of the “small boats Bill” today is a sign of just how influential his Common Sense Group has become.

Last Tuesday, as Parliament was engulfed in a new frenzy over Brexit with Mr Sunak’s Northern Ireland deal with the EU, Bracknell MP James Sunderland could be seen stalking the tables of Portcullis House (PCH) with a different purpose.

The former army colonel’s mission was to dragoon disgruntled Conservative backbenchers to go and see his boss, the Home Secretary Suella Braverman, for one-to-one meetings so they could air their grievance over the ongoing immigration crisis.

As well as being Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to Ms Braverman, Mr Sunderland is a member of Sir John’s Common Sense Group and entirely sympathetic to the ideas that illegal migrants should be deported as soon as possible if not instantly.

Ms Braverman is understood to joke that she is surprised to have found a PPS who is more right wing than her.

But despite having the right credentials, Mr Sunderland was struggling to persuade even fellow Common Sensers (the group has around 50 to 60 MPs) to speak to Ms Braverman.

Several years of empty promises on the small boats crisis with two tough-talking Home Secretaries in Priti Patel and now Ms Braverman have left MPs feeling cynical about any reassurances they may hear.

Instead, 45,000 arrived last year and their voters were going mad because local hotels had been requisitioned by the Home Office to pack in the illegal migrants.

And sure enough when they went to meet the Home Secretary she said the legislation to instantly deport migrants was “still weeks away.”

Hardly reassuring. Quite the opposite.

A source close to Ms Braverman confirmed the continued delay to Express.co.uk, saying: “We’re making it legally watertight and want it to be right, not rushed.”

Adding: “No point in introducing something that doesn’t work. I expect they’d see that as a bigger problem.”

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But at this point things suddenly got moving.

Sir John, on behalf of his group, was one of several senior MPs to have a meeting with the Chief Whip Simon Hart to tell him that enough was enough, and the Bill had to come forward.

It is perhaps going too far that the meetings involved friendly chats with menaces, but the menace is clear for everyone to see.

By Thursday, as one MP puts it: “A blond bombshell happened.”

In other words, Boris Johnson gave a speech which was a call to arms for the right of the party to oppose Mr Sunak’s Brexit deal.

With the other powerful group on the right, the European Research Group (ERG) of Tory Brexiteer MPs (including many of the same members as the Common Sensers), deliberating over what to do about the Northern Ireland deal it was clear Mr Sunak was exposed.

The right was on manoeuvres and the frustration over the failure to bring forward a Bill was impossible to avoid.

It may be that the Home Office civil servants had, as some suspected, being dragging their feet or simply that it was finally in good enough shape to bring forward today.

But the consensus among Tory backbenchers was the Prime Minister had understood from a two pronged attacked by his Home secretary and Chief Whip that “time was up”.

However, the story goes further back.

Ms Braverman, a former Attorney General, first came up with the idea of circumnavigating the Human Rights Act and European Court of Human Rights before Christmas.

She had been agitating before then to table the legislation, according to one source.

Mr Sunak though did not unveil it until January 5 and then the waiting game began.

Ms Braverman is close to Sir John who was mentor when she was first elected and with the backing of the Common Sense Group she tried to table the legislation before the February recess, according a source.

But having failed that, MPs had been led to believe it would come about a fortnight ago.

When at the beginning of last week the inaction appeared to be baked in, that is when Sir John and other Common Sensers acted.

Several MPs believe that the legislation would never have seen the light of day as government policy had it not been for the Common Sense Group pressing on the issue.

But the threat of a Johnson coup – with many Common Sensers Boris loyalists – also appears to have focussed minds.

One MP said: “There’s no doubt that the Prime Minister is looking over his shoulder at what Boris is doing.

“But without the Common Sense Group acting as a vehicle to push this issue it seems highly unlikely [the Prime Minister] would have even agreed to this legislation let alone publish it today.”

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