Showdown for Sunak as Tory MPs in disarray over Rwanda vote

By John Mercury December 12, 2023

Rishi Sunak is braced for a showdown on his Rwanda bill that could fatally undermine his authority as rival Tory factions make conflicting demands.

Moderates from the One Nation group said they would back the legislation aimed at reviving the stalled deportation scheme – but will drop support if there are any amendments that risk the UK breaching the rule of law and its international obligations.

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This is something groups on the right of the party have called for, with the New Conservatives saying the bill needs “major surgery or replacement” to ensure their backing.

The right-wing MPs are continuing discussions tonight before deciding how to vote at the second reading tomorrow – with Mr Sunak set to host a breakfast meeting in the morning to lobby for their support.

The vote on Tuesday is a huge test of the prime minister’s authority – no government has suffered a defeat at this stage of a proposed law’s progress since 1986.

Whatever happens in the vote, Sunak is in deep trouble

In making flights to Rwanda this totemic policy of his premiership, the prime minister has stoked a civil war in this party which threatens to blow up his benches and his leadership, as Brexit did for Theresa May.

Because just as with Brexit, the left and right of the party is split, unable to find common ground.

Over the next 24 hours, he will urge the right-wing rebels to stick with him. But what is so obviously clear is that winning tomorrow is only the beginning, not the end of the war.

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Explaining the position of moderates, Damian Green MP, chair of the One Nation group, said: “We have taken the decision that the most important thing at this stage is to support the bill despite our real concerns.

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“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.”

It takes 29 MPs to vote against, or 57 MPs to abstain, for Mr Sunak’s flagship legislation to be rejected – with no clarity on whether he could survive such a defeat in practice.

A number of Tory MPs revealed to Sky News’ deputy political editor Sam Coates that Number 10 is threatening to call an early election if they vote against the legislation – though some were sceptical Downing Street would follow through.

The support of the One Nation grouping of about 100 MPs could prove crucial in ensuring the bill moves onto the next parliamentary stage

Are there enough rebel MPs to bring down the Rwanda bill?

Just 29 Tory MPs need to vote against the bill – or 57 need to abstain – to kill it off.

We know there are around 100 MPs represented by the so-called “five families” of right-wing Tory factions, who have been the most vocal over stopping the boats.

Clearly, if all those MPs voted against or abstained on Tuesday, the bill would be toast.

But although they are often grouped together, it does not guarantee each faction will team up and come to the same conclusion.

At least two of the groups did not attend the ERG’s meeting this morning (despite being invited) to discuss the legal conclusions they had come to.

Also, even when a faction decides which way to vote, not all its signatories are guaranteed to follow suit. One member of the ERG has already publicly said he will vote for the bill, despite its flaws.

But remember, these aren’t the only groups on the Tory backbenchers, and Mr Sunak will need to keep in mind the more liberal One Nation collective too.

They also represent around 100 MPs. Tonight they have recommended members back the bill – though of course some may choose not to.

And even if they do, it does not mean the fight is over – as they have said they won’t support any changes to toughen up the bill – something those on the right are calling for.

With around 200 MPs still debating their position with just 24 hours to go, its understandable why Mr Sunak might be nervous.

Earlier today, the Brexiteer European Research Group (ERG) said the legislation had “so many holes in it” that the consensus from this wing of the party was to “pull the bill” and put forward a “revised version that works better”.

Meanwhile the New Conservatives said that the Rwanda Bill needs “major surgery or replacement”.

A spokesman for the group said: “More than 40 colleagues met tonight to discuss the bill.

“Every member of that discussion said the bill needs major surgery or replacement and they will be making that plain in the morning to the PM at breakfast and over the next 24 hours.”

The right-wing groups have yet to say how they will vote on the legislation and it may be that they back it tomorrow with a plan to change it through amendments further down the line.

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The prime minister revealed the new law last week in an attempt to revive the scheme that would see asylum seekers arriving by small boat crossings deported to Rwanda, after the Supreme Court ruled in November that it was unlawful.

The bill declares the African nation as safe and allows ministers to disapply the Human Rights Act to limit appeals against people being removed from the UK.

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It does not go as far as overriding the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which those on the right of the party said was necessary to avoid future legal challenges.

Rwanda ‘will withdraw from scheme’ if it breaks international law

The scheme has already cost £240 million, with additional costs of £50m expected in the coming year, despite no flights taking off since the policy was announced in April 2022.

In a rare move intended to win over critics, the government produced a summary of its own legal position in support of the new bill on Monday.

It said completely blocking any court challenges – something right-wing Tory MPs are keen on – would be “a breach of international law and alien to the UK’s constitutional tradition of liberty and justice, where even in wartime the UK has maintained access to the courts in order that individuals can uphold their rights and freedoms”.

The document also said the government of Rwanda had been clear it would withdraw from the scheme if the UK breached its international obligations, which would “render the bill unable to work in achieving the policy intention of deterrence – as there would be no safe country for the purposes of removal”.

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