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Rishi Sunak Pleas With Riotous Tories To Back His Rwanda Deal

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaves 10 Downing Street (Alamy)

6 min read

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will spend this weekend trying to convince cantankerous Conservative MPs to back his latest Rwanda plan when new legislation is put to a high-risk House of Commons vote early next week. 

Late on Thursday afternoon, in the largely empty atrium of Portcullis House – the building on the parliamentary estate where MPs, Westminster staff and journalists buy coffee, mingle and hold meetings they don't mind being subject to watchful eyes – three Conservative MPs were stood together, deep in what could end up being a very consequential conversation as far as Sunak is concerned.

In the middle was Julian Smith, the former Cabinet minister and major Sunak ally who is widely regarded as the Prime Minister's unofficial whip. To his left was Matt Warman, the Tory MP for Boston and Skegness and leading member of the reinvigorated One Nation group of moderate Conservatives. To his right was John Hayes, Tory MP for South Holland and The Deepings, chair of the more right-wing Common Sense Group of Conservative MPs and keen supporter of Suella Braverman, the erstwhile home secretary.

The scene represented a microcosm for the deep Conservative party divide that Sunak and his closest advisers must overcome in order to avoid a humiliating defeat when the House of Commons votes for his contentious new plan for the first time on Tuesday.

Smith, who served as Chief Whip for former prime minister Theresa May during the tumultuous Brexit years, appeared to be trying to broker common ground between two warring sections of the Tory party which hold fundamentally different views on the biggest debate among the Conservatives.

On one side is the parliamentary Tory party's self-described moderates, led by One Nation caucus chair Damian Green, who have warned the Prime Minister that they will not support any move by his government to override international law in their bid to finally get deportation flights to Kigali in the air. On the other are MPs on the right of the party, spread across the Common Sense Group, New Conservatives and European Research Group, who argue vehemently that doing so is the only way that ministers will be able to get the policy off the ground.

Government whips will spend this weekend trying to persuade these MPs to support Sunak's preferred approach when the new legislation has its Second Reading early next week.

Despite having initially issued a fairly positive response to the new Rwanda legislation, MPs in the One Nation caucus went into the weekend feeling "very nervous" about the government's planned approach to international law, as well as the Prime Minister's language in his Downing Street press conference earlier that day.

Lord Garnier, the lawyer and ex-Tory MP who has been enlisted by the moderate caucus to provide legal advice on Sunak's new legislation, has confirmed that he will not vote for it when it reaches the House of Lords. He described the legislation, which is expected to meet fierce opposition from peers, as "extraordinary" and "nonsense", and said that using law to declare Rwanda is a safe country is "rather like a bill that has decided that all dogs are cats".

Sources close to Justice Secretary Alex Chalk and Attorney General Victoria Prentis, who are strongly aligned with the One Nation group, believe the pair would have resigned from their Cabinet roles had the Prime Minister gone any harder on ignoring international law.

Despite the concern, moderate MPs are minded to vote for the legislation at its Second Reading on Tuesday and then push for changes at committee stage, PoliticsHome understands.

One moderate Conservative said malcontents on the opposite wing of the party were the bigger immediate problem for the Prime Minister, and that No10 would spend the days leading up to Tuesday's vote trying hard to "depress" the number of right-wing rebels planning to reject the legislation. These MPs, many of whom want Sunak to take the highly-contentious approach of leaving the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), are concerned that the legislation will not block people launching individual legal challenges to stop being deported to the African country. Sunak has argued he has gone as far as he is able to without collapsing the deal.

To the exasperation of many Conservative MPs, the debate over migration, both illegal and legal, has seen the Tory party return once again to a state of chaos, as the Prime Minister struggles to keep a lid on his increasingly ill-tempered and argumentative party.

One angry Conservative MP told PoliticsHome they were "pissed off" about seeing numerous colleagues give "unhelpful" media interviews, and expressed concern that Sunak may struggle to restore discipline to his party between now and the next general election. “Once you’re in that place, getting them back in the bottle is almost impossible," they said.

There was also fury with Robert Jenrick, the one-time ally of the Prime Minister who dramatically resigned as immigration minister on Wednesday in protest against the Rwanda legislation, which he said didn't go far enough.

"He has succumbed to the allure of the right of the party," said one former secretary of state, who told PoliticsHome they suspected Jenrick was trying to endear himself in preparation for the party's next leadership contest.

Some Conservative figures are frustrated and bewildered by what they see as the Prime Minister letting himself become defined by the issue of migration, and allowing the Rwanda element of his small boats policy to become a panacea in the minds of hardline Tory MPs.

In private many Conservative MPs are also expressing uneasiness over the steps being taken by the government to bring down net migration, with the number of people legally coming to the UK remaining high. Under pressure from the restless right, Sunak has decided to ban foreign care workers from bringing dependants with them to the UK, and raise the visa salary threshold for overseas workers from £26,200 to £38,700 — despite warnings that it will even put more pressure on staff-short industries, especially the social care sector.

One MP said the new rules for foreign care workers were "bonkers" and that a care home in their constituency had already warned them that they may be forced to close down as a result of the new restrictions. "The care sector is going to be decimated," they told PoliticsHome.

After a bruising week for the Prime Minister, the coming days don't get any gentler.

Before the House of Commons vote, on Monday it will be Sunak's turn to be interrogated by Hugo Keith KC as part of the Covid inquiry. He can expect probing questions about criticism levelled against him in hearings so far, including the claim by former chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance who in his diaries wrote that the then-chancellor deployed “pure dogma" when pushing for lockdown restrictions to be lifted. 

Then on Tuesday, the under-pressure Prime Minister will find just how effective, or not, his powers of persuasion have proven to be with increasingly impatient Conservative MPs on Rwanda. 

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