Will Rishi Sunak Survive His Nightmare After Christmas?

The prime minister's joy at winning Tuesday's crunch Rwanda vote was short-lived.
Rishi Sunak faces more battles with his own MPs in the New Year.
Rishi Sunak faces more battles with his own MPs in the New Year.
Jianan Liu/HuffPost

Just after 7.30pm on Tuesday, Rishi Sunak could finally allow himself a smile.

After days of yet more Tory infighting, and amid mounting speculation about his own future, the government’s flagship Rwanda bill was comfortably passed by the House of Commons.

There is still a long way to go before it becomes law - this was just a vote on its general principles - but for the embattled prime minister, a win is a win.

Factions on both the right and left of the Conservatives had threatened to withhold their support, so confirmation of the government’s 44-vote majority was music to the PM’s ears.

As is the way of things at Westminster, however, no sooner had Sunak banked this victory than thoughts turned to the battles which lie ahead in January before the legislation can be put onto the statute book.

The aim of the Safety of Rwanda Bill is a simple one: to finally allow asylum seekers to be deported to the east African country.

Ministers say that will act as enough of a deterrent to stop asylum seekers trying to cross the Channel in small boats - a perilous journey that claimed the life of another refugee yesterday.

But right-wing Tories fear that as currently drafted, the bill will still allow legal challenges to deportation under the European Convention on Human Rights and have demanded it be toughened up to make that impossible.

Anything that potentially contravenes international law, however, is anathema to the moderate One Nation caucus of Conservative MPs.

In a nightmare scenario for Sunak, any attempt to assuage one wing of the party runs the risk of angering the other, thereby threatening the bill’s passage through parliament.

One of the moderates, former justice secretary Robert Buckland, said: “For people who say they want to toughen up the bill, I think if you try and move further away from where the bill is, actually you’re going to weaken it because you’re going to make a clash with our domestic courts inevitable and that will just gum up the works for months to come.

″They can talk tough, but actually amending the bill in that way will make it weaker and will not achieve the policy objective that the government wants to see.

“So my advice to everybody is come together, work on what is possible and what is realistic, and then follow that through.”

The various right-wing groups - some of whom like to live out their Godfather fantasies by referring to themselves as “the five families” - did indeed “talk tough” before Tuesday’s vote, but in the end fewer than 30 of them actually abstained.

That has led to suspicions that, when push comes to shove, not enough of them will actually be willing to defeat the PM by voting against the bill, meaning Sunak is under less pressure to make any concessions.

One senior backbencher told HuffPost UK: “The right are divided - it’s a battle of the vanities.”

But a source at one of the right-wing factions, the European Research Group, warned the government not to take them lightly.

He told HuffPost UK: “We had enough numbers to prove the point on Tuesday night, but it doesn’t to take a genius to work out that there’s a whole lot more who weren’t on the list of abstentions.

If you add up all the people in the five groups, it’s a vast chunk of the backbench of the Conservative Party. They all want this bill to succeed, but if it won’t do what it’s meant to do, the PM is going to have to listen to us.”

Many Tory MPs are baffled as to why the prime minister is expending so much political capital on an issue that voters believe the government is failing on.

HuffPost UK last night revealed that most voters believe Rwanda will fail to stop the boat crossings. What’s more, 45% think ministers should not break international law to make the policy work, compared to 32% who think they should.

A former minister said: “Who knows what what will happen with the bill, but either way it will obviously hang over us for months. Colleagues just want it to go away.”

Labour, on the other hand, are happy for the Tories to keep tearing themselves apart in full view of the public.

A senior party source said: “People are pleading with the government to focus on fixing the mess they’ve made of the economy, the NHS and immigration. Instead, they are pretending to be members of the mafia organising hits on one another.

“They will do and say anything to distract from the chaos they are presiding over. After 13 years of this nonsense, people are fed up and desperate for change.”


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