Living on a knife edge
Attacked on all fronts over Rwanda, Rishi Sunak survived the vote this time. But, with the various factions pulling in opposite directions, he seems to be heading for a general election defeat, writes Eddie Ford
For a while, it seemed that Rishi Sunak was in big trouble - facing a major rebellion by rightwing Tory MPs over his flagship Rwandan policy to ‘stop the boats’ that some thought could possibly have pushed the government to the brink of collapse, or even trigger a general election. All day on December 12 there was excited talk about the vote on the emergency legislation being on a knife edge and, if ministers had been defeated at the second reading stage, it would have been the first time a government has lost such a vote since 1986, when dozens of Conservative MPs rebelled to defeat a plan by Margaret Thatcher to liberalise the Sunday trading rules - something that was hardly at the heart of governmental policy, let alone a priority pledge.
With only 29 Tory MPs voting against the bill needed to defeat it and Sunak’s authority already fragile, he went back and forth like a ping-pong between MPs representing what is commonly dubbed the ‘five families’ on the right of the party (like the five families alleged to control the mafia in the United States). Membership of the European Research Group, Northern Research Group, New Conservatives, Common Sense Group and the Conservative Growth Group sometimes overlaps and, of course, basically they want the same thing: legislation that is more or less invulnerable to legal challenges. A legal Holy Grail that will not go down to the supreme court, which, predictably, ruled last month that the Rwanda policy in its previous form, violated both domestic and international law.
Accelerating the crisis for the prime minister, the ERG’s ‘star chamber’ of lawyers had said the day before that the bill did not go far enough to deliver the policy as intended - with veteran backbencher Sir Bill Cash claiming that “significant amendments” would be needed to stop the removal of people to Rwanda being frustrated through legal challenges. Of course, Robert Jenrick compounded the crisis when he resigned as immigration minister last week on the grounds that the draft legislation was unworkable. Even more damagingly, he accused Sunak of failing to keep his word “to do whatever it takes” to “stop the boats” - as the legislation did not allow the government to override the international laws that have stopped the deportation of asylum-seekers to central Africa.
Sunak also held discussions with what you could call the ‘sixth family’ - the One Nation group of Tories on the centrist or liberal wing, which is the biggest and maybe the most cohesive grouping within the party. On the opposite end, they view the legislation in its current form as the very most they can tolerate and regard all notions of overriding the European Court of Human Rights, let alone leaving it, as a ‘red line’ they will never cross - or so they say, and there is no particular reason to disbelieve them. Disregarding or leaving the ECHR would have major implications for Britain, as it would essentially mean breaking with the post-World War II international political-legal architecture set up by the Atlantic alliance. This would leave the UK in the same company as Russia and Belarus - a highly uncomfortable situation, to put it mildly. Equally, it could trigger a whole series of crises relating to Northern Ireland and a host of other things for that matter.
Then again, it is near impossible to see how the inhuman policy of flying people off to central Africa could succeed while Britain remains part of the ECHR. According to Sunak’s emergency legislation, Rwanda is a “safe country” - a bit like calling a cat a dog and hoping no-one will notice. Thus James Cleverley, the recently appointed foreign secretary, told parliament that the proposed law puts “beyond legal doubt the safety of Rwanda” (though it does nothing of the sort) - while admitting that the actions taken by the government are “novel” and “very much pushing at the edge of the envelope”, yet somehow “are within the framework of international law”. (He is reported to have previously described the Rwanda plan as “batshit” - a more honest response.)
Obviously, Jenrick and his co-thinkers, like Suella Braverman, the former home secretary who did everything she could to get the sack, are amongst those who want to pull out of the ECHR - which they regard as part of the lefty-woke establishment they have sworn to overthrow. However, ahead of the vote on the bill, the new minister for illegal migration, Michael Tomlinson, said that stopping all legal appeals against deportation by people who arrive in the UK through irregular means would not be “the British thing to do” - a comment that upset the patriotic sensibilities of many on the right.
Adding to Rishi Sunak’s woes, the Rwandan government had said it would pull out of the deal if the UK breaks international law - leaving the prime minister with next to no room for manoeuvre. Even the government’s own legal advisors have said there is no more than a 50% chance of deportation flights leaving for Rwanda before the next election, which seems like an extremely generous assessment. Most people would put the odds much lower.
In the end, resisting calls from the right to pull the vote, Sunak won by a relatively comfortable majority of 313 votes to 269, with 37 Tory MPs abstaining. Downing Street might perhaps take some comfort from the fact that not a single Conservative MP actually voted against the bill - despite the threats - while the number of abstentions was significantly lower than the 100 claimed by the so-called ‘five families’, making the rightwing rebellion look a bit of a damp squib.
Having said that, Rishi Sunak now has a showdown with his backbenchers to look forward to in the new year - weeks of chaos, as he struggles to hold his mutinous party together, with the various factions pulling in diametrically opposite directions. A delighted Damian Green, chair of the One Nation group, argued that the successful vote and 44 majority for the government showed that the prime minister did not need to amend the Rwanda bill for it to survive - which appears naive, if he really believes it. But for Green and his faction Rishi Sunak “should stick to his guns” and leave the legislation as it is - no more pushing of the envelope, otherwise they will bail out.
Conversely, the right wing has allowed the bill to live another day, but without amendments or “major surgery” on the third reading they will do everything they can to kill it off next month. Therefore, Mark Francois, chair of the ERG - which became a household name during the Brexit crisis - said lots of MPs voted with the government on the basis that it would be “prepared to entertain some changes” to the plan and “have said so publicly”. He suggested, or warned, that the numbers were worse than they looked for Rishi Sunak if he did not “play ball” with the rightwing MPs. Whilst supporting “the principle of the bill”, Miriam Cates of the New Conservatives, who is the new Tory ‘darling’ and rising star of the right, said it was “defective” and will not stop the boats - stating the obvious. As for Robert Jenrick, he used his Commons speech to push for ‘unBritish’ stricter curbs on an individual’s ability to legally challenge a removal.
In other words, the ball is now in the government’s court - it has to decide what it wants to do next. Unhappily for the prime minister, the different factions seem on a straightforward collision course - running the Brexit wars all over again, but in an even more desperate way. If Sunak were to suffer the same fate as Theresa May, that would be an ironic reversal of events. The ‘five families’ of the right have about 100 MPs between them and the One Nation ‘family’ have 106 registered MPs, so between them they can scupper legislation at any time. Which means that now the government is stuck in one hell of a mess, trying to face all ways at once. James Cleverly has suggested that it wants the ECHR to change the way it operates, rather than Britain leaving it - which seems like a pipedream. Nor can the government fully decide whether the Rwanda bill is compliant with international law or not. On December 13, a briefing from the joint committee on human rights concluded that it was not, while officially the government claims it is. Yet Cleverly has said he cannot be sure if it is compatible with the ECHR, and he often deploys other evasive language - thus the remark about the bill being “within the framework of international law”, which could mean almost anything.
Further adding to the sense of crisis over Rwanda (if not doom for the government) were the revelations about the escalating cost of the scheme. For long, the home office and ministers have refused to spell out the full costs of the programme, citing “commercial sensitivity.” But eventually the parliamentary public accounts committee managed to drag out the information that, having originally budgeted for £140 million, the price tag has now increased to £290 million without one aircraft taking off for Africa - except for those containing government ministers going to Kigali to horse-trade with the Rwanda government. You could not make it up.
Unsurprisingly, the home office has now been ordered to give the full cost of Rwanda deportation plan. As it turns out, the £290 million figure does not take into account the actual deportation of migrants to the country, which could end up sending the bill over £400 million.
The impact assessment for the scheme says a theoretical cost for sending 1,000 migrants to Rwanda could be £169 million - or £169,000 a person - in contrast to the £106 million it would cost to accommodate them in the UK. But ministers still insist that the Rwanda plan is value for money because of the “deterrent effect” - something that is totally unproven and almost certainly does not exist. In a key testimony to the supreme court, as it deliberated on the Rwanda bill, the UN refugee agency gave evidence about a similar Israeli scheme, suspended in 2018, in which all of those deported to Rwanda ended up in Europe or elsewhere. If people are desperate enough and determined enough, they will keep trying to enter the UK, regardless of governmental policy.
Yet again, the only impression that you can be left with is that the wheels are falling off the Sunak government. Everything we are witnessing now, whether Jenrick’s resignation or Suella Braverman’s sacking, can only be understood within the context of the post-Sunak Tory Party rather than the forthcoming general election - the result of which seems less and less in doubt, as the prime minister’s net favourability ratings hit a new low of -49, according to YouGov (comparable to that of Boris Johnson’s at the time of his resignation).1 The increasingly ugly rows, the personal and political attacks, the jockeying for position - all are about the struggle for the soul of the party itself.