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The small boats crisis deepens - and so do Tory woes

The first three months of this year have seen the highest number of small boat arrivals ever at 4,644, according to provisional Home Office figures.

Not by very much. The number for the first three months of 2022 was 4,548 - 96 fewer.

A few days of poorer weather could have swung it the other way, but the point is it's moving in the wrong direction for a prime minister who promised to "stop the boats".

If you promise to reduce the numbers as one of your key pledges, then you get blamed for every failure to do so.

Politics live: New figures spell trouble for one of Sunak's pledges

Former immigration minister Robert Jenrick, who resigned from the government last year, described his party's immigration policy in a tweet as "the triumph of hope over experience".

As Tories head off on the local election campaign trail in glum spirits, the message from Downing Street is that this "migration emergency" can only be solved by getting flights to Rwanda.

And the legislation which might - possibly - allow that to happen won't be debated again until after Easter following a string of defeats by peers.

Time is ticking down.

"It's a mess," one former cabinet minister tells me. "Voters raise small boats all the time and they know there's no deterrent.

"Number 10 seem to think if they just keep saying the numbers will go down, maybe they will."

Plenty of initiatives have been launched, as the Home Office points out, but MPs question whether they are effective.

A year ago, Rishi Sunak agreed a deal with France worth £500m to step up patrols on their side of the Channel and fund a new detention centre, with the prime minister hailing it as progress in his small boats fight.

Despite a flurry of efforts in government to reduce the backlog of asylum claims and close migrant hotels in favour of bigger sites such as former military bases, it was revealed last week this may cost even more money.

The numbers are already eye-watering. The National Audit Office noted that in the year to March 2024, the Home Office expects to spend £4.7bn on asylum support, including £3.1bn on hotels.

Immigration is not the top issue for most voters, with the cost of living and the NHS regularly leading lists of their concerns, but it lurks in third place.

For Conservative voters, concern at the government's handling of immigration, or mishandling, has been rising steadily.

With the additional challenge from the Reform Party, which wants stronger border controls, the prime minister heads into local elections with another of his five pledges looking very shaky.