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Rishi Sunak Prepares To Face Down "Unpredictable" Tory Rwanda Rebels

Rishi Sunak (Alamy)

8 min read

Rishi Sunak is braced for a critical and unpredictable day in the House of Commons, as dozens of disgruntled Conservative MPs decide whether to use a vote on Rwanda legislation to torpedo one of the Prime Minister's flagship policies.

Ahead of Wednesday evening's vote, Government is holding talks with 60 Tory backbenchers who defied the Prime Minister on hardline right-wing amendments to the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill on Tuesday night, in a bid to dissuade them from rebelling again when the MPs vote on the Bill as a whole. If the Bill does not pass through the Commons at this third reading stage it will collapse.  

At lunch time Sunak's Press Secretary urged Conservative MPs to support the legislation at tonight's vote so the government "can get this deterrent up-and-running as quickly as possible".

Several Tory MPs who defied the government to back amendments on Tuesday have already said that they will vote for the Bill tonight. They include Michael Fabricant and Henry Smith, who have both said that while not totally satisfactory, the Bill in its current form will be an improvement on the current situation when it comes to tackling Channel crossings.

However, two of the most staunch critics of the legislation have confirmed that they will vote against it as things stand. In a joint statement by Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates, the co-chairs of the New Conservatives, they said voting against the Government would produce "disruptive and cause difficult headlines" for the Tories but believed it was the right decision for the country. 

"The doomed pursuit of unity as an end in itself will mean nothing if, as we sadly anticipate, this bill fails to deliver on the promises we have made to those who send us here."

The ongoing row in Westminster appears to be have caused frustration in Kigali. Speaking to The Guardian at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Rwanda's president Paul Kagame said there are "limits for how long this can drag on" and that "it is the UK’s problem, not ours".

Two deputy party chairmen and one parliamentary private secretary lost their jobs on Tuesday evening in order to back the amendments to the legislation tabled by ex-home office minister Robert Jenrick and senior Brexiteer Bill Cash.

While 58 Conservative MPs voted against the government last night, only around 30 would need to do so later today to inflict a humiliating defeat on Sunak. A defeat in the House of Commons would not only cast doubt over the future of the government's Rwanda policy, but also raise questions about the Prime Minister's grip on power. 

As of Wednesday morning, the feeling across the Conservative party, including within Government, was that the number of rebels would fall short of the number needed for the Bill to fall. A large number of Tory backbenchers who voted for last night's amendments are expected to abstain at Wednesday's third reading.

But with many hours to go until the vote, there is also a large degree of uncertainty, with anger on the right of the Conservative party simmering over how they feel Downing Street has treated their concerns about possible challenges to deporting people to Rwanda if they arrive illegally to the UK in small boats.

One government-supporting Conservative MP acknowledged that the right-wing rebels, who want the government to disregard international law in order to enact the controversial Rwanda policy, were "pretty unpredictable". 

A right-wing Tory who rebelled on Tuesday evening said they still believed it was "entirely possible" that Sunak could lose tonight.

So far ten Conservative MPs have publicly said they would be prepared to vote against the government on Wednesday evening if a new set of amendments tabled by the right-wing of the party are not accepted following a second day of debating the legislation. They include former home secretary Suella Braverman and former Cabinet minister Simon Clarke.

One senior Tory said Conservative MPs should "expect a rather high degree" of pressure from the Government Whips heading into tonight's vote. There is a belief that Tory backbenchers who are considering rebellion may be threatened with the prospect of Sunak rushing to call a general election now if the government is defeated. Previously the Prime Minister has said it is his "working assumption" that an election wouldn't be held until towards the end of this year. 

Downing Street has repeatedly insisted that the Rwanda legislation as it currently exists is the most hardline it can be without undermining its purpose of deterring channel crossings, and that any amendments must have a "respectable" legal argument underpinning them.

Ministers are concerned that adopting the right-wing plan to do away with human rights law and the European Convention of Human Rights would represent a clear breach of the UK's international obligations, and may even prompt the Rwandan government to withdraw from its agreement to take migrants from Britain.

The Prime Minister's Press Secretary today told reporters that Tory rebels still haven't shared with the government a legal case for why their proposed changes wouldn't amage the legality of the legislation. 

"We asked to see it last week and they said they'd be happy to share it. I understand that we asked to see it every day since then and we haven't received it," they said, adding that it would have been "helpful" to have seen it in advance. They later clarified that they were referring to the advice by John Larkin KC, which Jenrick is relying on when it comes to his amendment to the legislation.

Sunak has sought to convince Tory rebels that he would be prepared to ignore emergency measures issued by the ECHR, known as Rule 39 orders, in order to get flights off the ground. It is, however, unclear how viable this course of action would prove in practice. 

The government has also sought to allay rebel concerns about the threat of legal challenges thwarting deportations through further announcements. On Tuesday, the Ministry of Justice said it would expand court capacity and train 150 judges to ensure appeals against deportations are dealt with as quickly as possible.

Ministers will not, however, re-write the civil service code  to help ministers get flights off the ground, as had been suggested. Sunak's official spokesperson today described those reports as "not right". PoliticsHome understands that the government will provide the Home Office with additional guidance on how the code applies to officials in its current form. 

The return of the legislation to the Commons this week has caused Tory infighting over the issue of illegal migration to resume with gusto, despite the party's chief strategist Isaac Levido on Monday night urging Conservative MPs to unite if they hope to avoid wipeout when the public goes to the polls. "Let me be clear: divided parties fail," he told a meeting of backbenchers only two days ago.

Conservative peer Lord Frost, who is closely aligned with the right-wing pushing for amendments, accused ministers of using anoymous quotes to "rubbish" Conservative MPs who want to "deliver a bill that actually does the job".

Former Cabinet minister Damian Green, who leads the One Nation caucus of moderate Conservative MPs, last night said "rational" Tory back benchers would vote for the legislation even if they were not completely satisfied with it, as it is better than getting "nothing at all".

"There are plenty of bills that pass this place where people will have reservations but will think this is 80 or 90 per cent of what I want to see. Rational people in those circumstances vote for that, rather than get nothing at all.

“All of my colleagues are rational in their way, most of them are extremely rational and will therefore vote for a bill that shifts the dial in a direction that they want it moved."

The One Nation wing of the party has threatened to withdraw their support for the Rwanda legislation if Sunak gives in to the demands of the Tory right.

Tobias Ellwood told PoliticsHome he had "doubts" that the Rwanda policy would tackle Channel crossings even if the government is successful in getting flights off the ground. 

"Fundamentally the idea that these Rwanda flights will pay any dividends to the operational side of dealing with migration, I have my doubts," he said.

"A lot of this is driven by this little England, post-Brexit environment of us just wanting to stand on our own. I'm afraid [it is] an ignorant appreciation for the wider picture and of causing mischief.

"And writing off the next election, and therefore not being loyal to Rishi Sunak and therefore the discussions about where it might go after the election, we are coming to this discussion now."

He added: "It’s become totemic. We get one flight back, suddenly our migration issues are solved. We know that's not going to be the case."

Gutto Harri, former No.10 director of communications, last night described the right-wing malcontents as "self-centered narcissists" and their rebellion as "utterly futile".

He told Sky News: "Tomorrow [Wednsesday night] they will either bottle it or they really are committing mass suicide as a party. So the futility of it, the self-indulgence of it, the narcissism of it, in aid of what?"

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