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Tory Party "Temperature" To Soar Again As Rwanda Bill Row Returns

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (Alamy)

6 min read

Conservative MPs are braced for a resurgence of party in-fighting over illegal migration when the contentious Rwanda bill returns to the House of Commons for further votes next week. 

One senior Tory predicted that the "temperature" within the parliamentary Tory party would rise once again when the legislation returns to the House of Commons for its committee stage on Tuesday and Wednesday.

A fierce divide emerged in the Conservative party over the Bill late last year, with more moderate Tories insisting they could not support any legislation that risked breaking international law – a criticism that has been levelled at the proposals – while MPs on the right of the party argued it did not go far enough to remove the all avenues for migrants to appeal deportation orders. While the bill squeaked through the Commons at its second reading, numerous MPs on the right of the party who say they only lent their support in December with the intention of securing changes from ministers at a later stage.

Not a single Conservative MP voted against the bill late at that point, though 38 MPs on the right of the party abstained in a warning shot to the government. 

Ministers have since been locked in talks with MPs on both sides of the Rwanda debate as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hopes to see the legislation through Parliament without triggering a major Tory backlash. 

MPs Sunak needs to appeal to most are spread across factions including the European Research Group (ERG), the New Conservatives and the Common Sense Group, and have warned Downing Street they will be prepared to vote against the government if Government refuses to give them the changes they desire. 

These MPs, who are fronted by senior Conservatives like erstwhile home secretary Suella Braverman and former immigration minister Robert Jenrick, argue that the bill currently does not go far enough to stop foreign courts blocking deportation flights to Rwanda.

Jenrick, who resigned from his Home Office role in December in protest against the legislation, confirmed several amendments to the bill late on Tuesday night, which if passed, would force the government to go further in overriding the Human Rights Act and European Convention of Human Rights in order to prevent flights being stopped by legal challenges. "The stakes for the country could not be higher," said the Conservative MP for Newark.

The Government's Illegal Migration Bill aims to forcibly deport migrants who arrive illegally in the UK to Rwanda, where cases to be settled in the East African country will be processed, but has faced legal challenges over perceived safety breaches meaning no deportation flights have gone ahead. Additional legislation now aims to declare Rwanda a safe country in order to avoid human rights challenges in international courts. 

In an interview with the BBC on Sunday, the Prime Minister refused to say whether he would be prepared to ignore an emergency interim measure issued by the European Court of Human Rights, known as an Order 39, to guarantee a deportation flight to Rwanda getting off the ground. His answer exacerbated concerns the right-wing Tories that the plan in its current form is too soft.

Bill Cash, the senior pro-Brexit Conservative MP and member of the ERG, tabled an amendment to the legislation of his own on Tuesday night which seeks to do away with international law.

It is supported by over 30 Tory MPs including former party leader Iain Duncan Smith, former Cabinet minister Simon Clarke and the leading member of the New Conservatives Miriam Cates.

Conservative MP Robert Jenrick

Sunak has repeatedly stressed, however, that he will not accept modifications to the bill which risk breaking international law and prompt the Rwandan government to pull out of its agreement with the UK government. With the Prime Minister seemingly only willing to accept minor tweaks to his plans, there is significant doubt over whether the government will go far enough to satisfy the demands of Cash, Jenrick and co.

"We will try to agree an amendment with them [the government]. If we don't, we will go ahead and amend it anyway," a senior MP on the Tory right told PoliticsHome.

Members of Parliament in the moderate, 'One Nation' wing of the party, led by caucus leader Damian Green MP, meanwhile, have warned ministers that they are prepared to withdraw their reluctant support for the legislation if Sunak gives in to right-wing demands for harder measures — a move that would risk a House of Commons defeat for the Prime Minister.

“They need to understand that the One Nation group has had enough," one backbencher in the 106-MP strong caucus told PoliticsHome.

Group leader Green as well as Matt Warman, a vocal One Nation Tory, have urged all MPs in the group to support the legislation as it stands, in the name of party unity. 

"We know that the government is at its best when its bravest legislation is on the right side of international law, unamended,” he told a One Nation New Year's reception on Tuesday evening.  “And we know that the Conservative Party is the success it is because it’s such a broad church — people who, however uncomfortable some things might make them, are prepared to compromise in the national interest because we know the real risk is from Labour."

However, it is possible that some moderate Conservative MPs will decide to break ranks and push for amendments in the other direction, such is their level of concern about what the Rwanda legislation would mean for the UK's adherence with international law. 

Robert Buckland, the former Cabinet minister, told PoliticsHome he was weighing up tabling amendments in relation to several clauses in the bill, which he says unlike amendments pushed by Tory MPs on the right of the parliamentary party would attract cross-party support.

In an unusual step, House of Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt confirmed on Tuesday that the next round of votes on the Bill would take place in the middle of next week. The House of Commons Leader usually sets out the government's parliamentary business on Thursday morning. Mordaunt told MPs the government wanted to give them more time to consider amendments to the legislation prior to its return.

A fresh outbreak of Tory party infighting would threaten to distract from Sunak's efforts to build momentum heading into the next general election, which the Prime Minister has suggested will take place in the Autumn. A YouGov poll published yesterday put Keir Starmer's Labour Party a massive 24 per cent ahead of the Sunak's beleaguered Conservatives.

Sir David Lidington, a Tory grandee who held several Cabinet positions, on Sunday urged Conservative MPs to "get their act together" and stop arguing between themselves, warning that the party has no chance of avoiding defeat to Starmer if the "indiscipline" of 2023 continues. “A party that's divided and squabbling amongst itself is never going to win the confidence of the electorate," he told PoliticsHome.

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