OPINION - Rishi Sunak is on the edge of a political death spiral over Rwanda

Rishi Sunak has a tough week that kicks off with the Covid inquiry (Justin Tallis/PA) (PA Wire)
Rishi Sunak has a tough week that kicks off with the Covid inquiry (Justin Tallis/PA) (PA Wire)

Rishi Sunak heads into the chamber tonight as the leader of a Conservative Party which has escaped his control. The proximate issue is the second reading of the emergency legislation on an overhauled Rwanda bill to circumvent legal objections in the Supreme Court ruling against the policy.

The greater significance, however, is the waning authority of the PM, who now finds himself on trial at the behest of the “five families” representing about 100 MPs on the Right of the party, voicing varying degrees of dissatisfaction with a bill which represents one of Sunak’s chosen priorities.

A revival of the European Research Group (a grandiose branding by a group of hardline Eurosceptics) bent on making their party ungovernable reminds us that like the original “families” schisms of New York’s mafia in the Thirties, the feuds keep on coming — and so does the parliamentary blood-letting.

This morning, a PM currently running on about four hours’ sleep a night hosted a breakfast to sweeten the tempers of about 20 MPs that No 10 believe can be won round with bacon sandwiches, croissants, strong coffee and the gratification of getting the PM’s ear in a crisis. Trusted allies, from James Cleverly to Ben Wallace, have been dispatched to rally support and save the Rwanda plan.

For many Tory MPs the PM’s desires carry little weight because they do not accept his authority

Sunak looks more worried than I have ever seen him — not withstanding a staunch appearance at the Covid Inquiry. The pincer movement he faces is a daunting one — wavering moderates in the party are concerned that the legislation risks breaching Britain’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Even if he succeeds in keeping this group on board on the grounds, as one generally supportive MP puts it, that “Rishi’s leadership is now in the hands of people who have now gone fully nuts”, the Rwanda legislation is no longer the powerful “wedge issue” the PM sought against Labour on immigration and asylum.

It has become a millstone he cannot get rid of and one which places his future in jeopardy. It is a “wedge” all right — but one driving his party into deeper internal disagreements.

Needless to say this is the sort of politics that paves the way to self-destruction at pace. As the former leader William Hague pointed out today, backbenchers chest-puffing about their principles and preaching about how they would like the Rwanda policy ingredients adapted to reflect their preferences and aversions, have forgotten what opposition feels like after a major election defeat.

Another interpretation is that they feel the Government is doomed — and seek to harden up legislation while they have the chance. What is certain is that for many Tory MPs, the PM’s desires and courses of action carry little weight, because they do not accept his authority.

The only possible good outcome for Sunak is that the whips persuade enough grumblers before tonight’s vote that a defeat for him would see the Tories headed for a seismic election defeat of a scale that would also wipe out the Right of the party. As one of the PM’s allies sent forth to twist arms in the Commons tea rooms puts it: “Any margin of a win now would look like an achievement.”

The corollary is that a defeat would, one way or the other, signal the death spiral of Sunak’s leadership. Having worked its way through two prime ministers since Boris Johnson was elected in 2019, anointing a third without a mandate is not credible. So for all the talk of restoring Johnson (who isn’t a sitting MP) to help the party in an emergency election campaign, the hurdles to doing so are formidable. That means that Sunak is set for the role of martyrdom, with the heaviest wounds inflicted by his own side.

Amid the din, the loudest silence this week hails from Labour, which finds itself in the luxurious position of needing to say nothing at all (let alone on its own vagaries on the topic), letting voters appreciate the scale of the Tory meltdown. If Sunak does see off his opponents this evening, it will be a stay of execution, with due credit for surviving rebellion on knife-edge terms. A loss will inflict fatal damage on a luckless government and consolidate its recurring pattern of discontent and blame.

Whatever the outcome, the message is that Sunak is struggling to control the Tories’ disputatious family (let alone five of them). And as with all simple messages in a convoluted story, that’s the one voters will remember.

Anne McElvoy is executive editor at Politico