Rwanda or Bust: What a Hill to Die on…

Rishi Sunak faces crunch Rwanda vote as Tory MPs split

Sunak’s Rwanda Gambit Teeters as Tory Rebels Threaten Revolt

Yet another unelected Tory Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak faces a defining test of leadership as rebels threaten to torpedo his flagship Rwanda asylum policy when it comes to a crunch Commons vote on Tuesday. Despite frantic last-minute pleas, enough Tory MPs look set to abstain or vote down the bill to potentially inflict a humiliating political defeat.

The rebel ranks comprise both moderate ‘One Nation’ Tories opposing provisions that could breach international law, and the party’s ascendant right-wing seeking even harsher anti-immigration measures. Their contradictory demands leave Sunak squashed in the middle without a clear path to compromise or consensus.

If the Rwanda bill fails, Sunak would confront the worst crisis yet in his brief tenure, perhaps presaging an imminent leadership challenge or yet another general election. Years of Tory turmoil over Brexit, COVID policies and economics could culminate with the Party tearing itself apart over immigration and asylum, again.

The Rwanda scheme constitutes a cornerstone of Sunak’s push to “stop the boats” crossing the English Channel. It intends to deter migrants by shipping asylum seekers over 6,000 miles away to have claims processed in the East African nation. But November’s Supreme Court ruling overturned an initial flight on human rights grounds, finding Rwanda’s asylum framework lacking.

The new legislation tries to override that verdict by statutorily declaring Rwanda conclusively safe while banning British judges from ever ruling otherwise – regardless of evidence. This bid to neuter judicial review has moderates sounding alarms over rule of law breaches. Yet hardliners deem it inadequate for blocking legal challenges that could still arise over individual cases.

Sunak thus confronts simultaneous revolts from opposite flanks: the libertarian right demanding a harsher bill stripped of refugee protections, and centrists refusing to countenance anything that violates international conventions. Whips have strained all weekend trying to prevent a historic repudiation.

If ministers were to be defeated at second reading stage, it would be the first time a government had lost such a vote since 1986, when dozens of Conservative MPs rebelled to defeat a plan by Margaret Thatcher to end Sunday trading restrictions.

Many on the right of the party are unhappy with the bill, and say their opposition has hardened since the weekend. One said: “This bill does not work, so I’m not sure why we would back it.”

Asked whether they would be willing to trigger a leadership crisis by rebelling en masse, they added: “We don’t want him to go, but if Rishi wants to hold a gun to his own head over this, that’s his decision.”

If rightwing MPs decide to oppose the bill, they have the numbers to kill it, with 29 votes against likely to trigger a defeat as Labour is also planning to oppose it. But if the prime minister bows to their calls to amend the bill, Sunak could eventually face an even larger rebellion from centrist MPs from the One Nation group.

The group, which comprises about 100 members, said on Monday night they would back the bill “unamended”, adding: “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.”

But Tory dissent now appears snowballing to the point of unstoppability. One leading Conservative critic lambasted the bill as so full of “holes” that it requires “major surgery or replacement.” Opposition parties have already vowed united efforts to vote it down.

Sunak therefore faces a momentous choice in next 24 hours – whether to risk his premiership on a humiliating defeat, or pull the legislation to fight another day. Either way, the episode may come to signify the fracturing of the Conservatives into warring tribes no leader can unify or appease. The Rwanda gambit could determine whether Sunak’s own turbulent term crashes to an early end but if this is the hill that Sunak’s tenure dies on the big question is what next?

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