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Rishi Sunak In Last-Ditch Talks To Avert Tory Rwanda Rebellion

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaves Dorland House after giving evidence to the Covid Inquiry (Alamy)

5 min read

Rishi Sunak will spend the coming hours trying to persuade a critical mass of MPs on the right of the Conservative party to back his Rwanda plan when it is put to a House of Commons vote for the first time on Tuesday night. A group of 40 are threatening to defy him.

While the Prime Minister spent the lion's share of Monday answering questions at the Covid inquiry, his close allies were busy in Westminster trying to dissuade a group of Tory MPs who are unhappy with the legislation in its current form and are threatening to vote it down tomorrow.

Sunak himself is set to host a Downing Street breakfast with MPs from the right-wing New Conservatives group early on Tuesday morning as part of his late bid to stave off a humiliating Tory backbench rebellion later in the day.

A senior government source said the hours leading up to tomorrow's vote would be about "handling" — reflecting how delicate the situation the Prime Minister finds himself in as he tries to convince a divided and restless party to back his plans.

Sunak, who has made stopping small boats crossings one of his main pledges to the country ahead of the next general election, finds himself in a highly-precarious position as he prepares to put his revised Rwanda plan to its second reading.

Many MPs on the right of the party, who on Monday held a series of meetings about how to best approach tomorrow's vote, claim that the legislation in its current form does not go far enough and want Sunak to harden his approach further by overriding international law.

MPs on the "moderate" wing of the party, however, warn that ignoring international treaties like the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is a red line for them. 

Around 40 MPs on the right of the party, who are spread across the European Research Group, Common Sense group and New Conservatives, met in the parliamentary office of Tory MP Danny Kruger on Monday night for talks about how to approach tomorrow's vote. They were addressed by Robert Jenrick, who quit as immigration minister last week in protest against the Rwanda legislation. 29 or more Conservative MPs voting against the legislation would be sufficient to inflict a major defeat on the Prime Minister.

Some MPs on the right of the party are minded to vote for the legislation and then push for the changes they desire when it reaches the committee stage of the parliamentary process.

Liam Fox, the former Cabinet minister, urged his colleagues to take this approach.

“For those who believe the bill needs to be strengthened further, the obvious course of action is to vote for a second reading and try to amend the bill in a committee of the whole house.

"That is what parliamentary procedure is for," he told PoliticsHome.

Martin Vickers, the Tory MP for Cleethorpes, urged for colleagues to row behind Sunak in the name of party unity. He told Sky News: "If the bill were to be lost tomorrow, government will lose considerable authority, and that's the last thing we want as we approach election year."

Even if the Prime Minister does avoid defeat tomorrow, there will be major questions over how he will placate MPs on the right of the Tory party later in the legislative process. 

No10 reiterated this afternoon that the Rwanda legislation in its current form is the strongest it could possibly be, casting doubt over where the government could make concessions to the alliance of right-wing groups when further votes are held in early 2024.

"That remains our view," said the Prime Minister's spokesperson.

"Obviously, we want to listen to MPs and hear constructive comments they have.

"We do believe this bill is strong enough to achieve the aims the UK public wants, which is to stop the boats. We've set out the detail and indeed the legal position as to why we believe that is the case, and of course we will listen to colleagues."

Sunak received a boost on Monday night when the One Nation caucus of moderate Tory MPs said they would vote for the bill on Tuesday evening, despite their "real concerns" over it.

However, caucus chair Damian Green warned the Prime Minister that the group, which currently has 106 Conservative MPs on its books, would not support any future move to harden the bill through amendments — setting up a major showdown between different wings of the Tory party in early 2024 when further votes take place.

"We strongly urge the government to stand firm against any attempt to amend the Bill in a way that would make it unacceptable to those who believe that support for the rule of law is a basic Conservative principle," said Green in a statement.

Speaking to PoliticsHome on Monday, one weary former secretary of state said they did not know how the Prime Minister would get his new plan for deporting people to Rwanda through Parliament given the size of the gulf between the demands of the party's moderate and right wings. They said the two positions seemed "irreconcilable".

Westminster was a hive of Tory party activity on Monday as the government tried to abate backbench hostility to the bill.

Home Secretary James Cleverly and Immigration Minister Michael Tominson briefed Conservatives MPs on the substance of the bill, while two of the Prime Minister's main allies, Chief Whip Simon Hart and his Private Parliamentary Secretary Craig Williams, were in Portcullis House in conversations with numerous MPs from the right of the parliamentary party.

Additional reporting by Tom Scotson.

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