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Resignations, rows, Rwanda: is this the start of another Tory endgame?

<span>Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP</span>
Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

It was about 5pm on Wednesday, as rumours began to spread like wildfire around the palace of Westminster about a big ministerial resignation, that Tory MPs found themselves asking an all too familiar question. Was authority draining away from their leader and prime minister?

Suella Braverman, recently dismissed from the cabinet by Rishi Sunak for serial disloyalty, had just delivered a stinging personal statement to the House of Commons, surrounded by a few supporters on the party’s right wing, including Liz Truss. The group had nodded enthusiastically as the ousted home secretary said that Sunak’s latest plan for sending asylum seekers to Rwanda – to be unveiled a few hours later – must override human rights laws in order to work, and warned that if it did not, the Tories faced electoral “oblivion”.

Braverman’s words were strong, but they were not the hottest topic of discussion in many quiet corners of the Commons. The word was getting round that Braverman’s speech would be followed within an hour or so by another bombshell departure from the Home Office, with the resignation of the immigration minister, and friend of Sunak, Robert Jenrick.

Close to the Commons chamber, a former minister on the left of the party, when asked what he thought of the goings on, paused and said merely “there are no words [to describe my feelings]” before snorting and spinning off down the corridor. Nearby, a pair of ex-ministers on the opposite wing of the party – no supporters of Sunak – could be heard talking about Jenrick and what it all might mean for the PM. “Interesting times,” was the assessment of one, who then walked away, grinning.

It was an afternoon and evening of unrelenting Westminster drama that could match many from the latter days of Boris Johnson or Liz Truss. At 6.30pm, Braverman’s replacement as home secretary, James Cleverly, had been at the dispatch box announcing the new emergency immigration bill on the Rwanda plan – now Sunak’s signature policy – as Labour MPs tried to shout him down with derisive taunts and cries of “Where’s Jenrick? Where is he?”. Where, indeed, was the man supposed to be fronting the entire bill on which Sunak appeared to be staking his reputation?

Wednesday was supposed to have been the day that Johnson provided the media with its top political story from morning until night, with his appearance before Heather Hallett’s Covid inquiry. He duly did, until early evening. But after that, Sunak’s travails became the far bigger news, as yet another Tory prime minister seemed to be on the slide.

At a meeting of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers that evening, supporters of Sunak were pleased he had turned up and come out swinging. “He was animated,” said one veteran. “He was blunt with the party. I thought, this guy wants to win. He wants to win this argument. It was like: ‘You’re either coming with me or you’re heading to opposition.’ He didn’t say it, but the impression was strongly left that some of our colleagues did want to be in opposition. Robert [Jenrick] may have given up, but I and others haven’t.”

That early show of mettle, however, was almost immediately punctured by confirmation of Jenrick’s decision to quit. The news set minds racing faster, and planted new doubts about the man at the top and the breadth of his support.

“It is very bad for Rishi. Jenrick and him were close,” said another former minister. “When you lose your friends, you have to worry. He has problems now if this spreads.”

The next morning, Sunak held a rather tetchy mid-morning press conference defending the new bill and describing it as “the toughest immigration law ever”, while listing what he saw as his many other achievements in just over a year as prime minister. It was a show of bravado, but to some on his side it was all rather grating and ill-judged, not to say desperate.

One former cabinet minister said: “In performance terms, Rishi being butch doesn’t work – for contingent reasons, like the fact that he is short and has a light voice. That is not his fault. But what is his fault is not to realise that his brand, Rishi at his best, is Rishi saying ‘I know more about this than you do, I am cleverer than you, I have read every word about this, I am now going to explain calmly to you why I am right and you are wrong,’ rather than this ‘come and have a go, mate!’ approach.”

This is a bit like Brexit in the sense that it will have the effect of drawing the whole of the right together

Member of the ERG

If the style was not working for many, the plan for the legislation to speed through parliament was also coming unstuck, as the whips picked up signs of widespread Tory disgruntlement. In his press conference, Sunak had said the bill to get flights off to Rwanda with asylum seekers on board would be pushed through “faster than ever before”. In fact, so great was concern about the prospect of mass rebellion that within a few hours business managers had shoved back the timetable so that only the second reading of the bill would happen before Christmas, and not the inevitably more problematic stages where amendments would be tabled.

Labour also noted the delay could have big implications for the general election, which Sunak has hinted he wants to fight on immigration issues. The shadow leader of the house, Lucy Powell, said: “He [Sunak] has now pushed the bill back, moving difficult votes at committee stage into the new year, not before Christmas. That now leaves the prospect of all stages of the bill happening in time for a May election in serious doubt.” Others said royal assent in time for a May poll was virtually impossible, given the inevitability of hold-ups in the Lords.

It is now more than two months since Sunak tried to reset his premiership by announcing U-turns on the green agenda, and by abandoning the northern section of the HS2 rail line. More recently, he has focused on immigration and the Rwanda plan, hoping to create a key dividing line with Labour.

But politically, there is little sign that any of it is working for him. In fact, the indicators point the other way. Ominously for the prime minister, the latest immigration bill has brought various Tory factions on the right of the party together in a common cause. The European Research Group (ERG) – so critical during Brexit – along with the so-called New Conservatives and the old-right Common Sense Group, are now all worried, as Braverman had warned, that the new plans do not go far enough to allow international law to be bypassed, to ensure that Rwanda flights can actually take off.

Some Tory MPs have found themselves at ERG meetings for the first time since the Brexit battle, to register their concerns. “I hadn’t been for years,” said one senior figure. “This is a bit like Brexit in the sense that it will have the effect of drawing the whole of the right together. It is the uniting of the right.”

These three pressure groups alone, MPs said, could count 100 MPs among their collective memberships, indicating the size of the problem facing Sunak. Many of them are already describing votes on the bill – the first of which will happen on Tuesday – as key tests for Sunak’s authority, which could possibly determine his longevity as prime minister. “There is a definitive test of its effectiveness, and that is: will the planes fly?” said one former minister. “In six months’ time, if we find that the bill is law but it hasn’t worked, then that’s going to be catastrophic for Rishi. So they had better make it work. The stakes couldn’t be higher.”

On the left of the party there is deep unhappiness too. The One Nation group, comprising more than 100 MPs on the centre and centre-left, is also worried about the bill. Writing online for the Observer, its leader, Damian Green, says his group too will make a judgment on how to approach the legislation at a meeting early this week. Their discomfort about anything that appears to disrespect international law is clear.

The latest crisis in the Tory party is inevitably raising increasing questions about the strategy, judgment, and leadership coming from No 10. Many Tories are simply puzzled as to why the prime minister has decided to stake so much on a fight about immigration and ignored other, better subjects on which they believe he could cause real problems for Labour. “The next election isn’t going to be settled on immigration, and we’re slightly making problems for ourselves by having such a focus on it,” said one baffled former cabinet minister. “If you can flip things to more of an economic argument, that’s where the public are most concerned. That’s where Sunak is strongest, too.”

As it is, the government now faces a protracted parliamentary battle on an issue that, initially at least, has served more to expose divisions within his own party, and sow internal doubts about his leadership, than cause trouble for Labour. While it is premature to talk of a leadership crisis or challenge to Sunak, some senior figures seem uncertain. Asked how he thought votes on the bill would go and if the PM could be in trouble, former party leader Iain Duncan Smith did not deny the potential for a crisis was there. “It is an important decision,” he said. “Everyone is keeping their counsel.”

Another senior figure on the right said the “most likely” outcome would be that the bill would be given its second reading this week with only a few Tories abstaining or voting against, and then rewritten with amendments at later stages. Should it ever make it out of the Commons, there is the grim prospect of the Lords, where peers will feel it is their right to challenge a measure, on constitutional and legal grounds, that was not in the last Conservative manifesto. Tory peers have already raised concerns.

And yet, just as the prime minister and his whips need to be wargaming the party’s factional responses to a bill on which Sunak’s own credibility may rest, the PM’s precious hours will be taken up this weekend going over his testimony to the Covid inquiry, before which he will appear on Monday.

Related: The UK’s deal with Rwanda must stay within the rule of law

The hearing is yet more evidence of Sunak’s inability to escape his own party’s recent past. The inquiry has apparently been circulating in its bundle of evidence an interview conducted by Sunak during the Tory leadership contest in the summer of 2022, which he lost to Liz Truss. In the interview, with the Spectator magazine, Sunak suggested that scientists had too much power and that key discussions about the trade-offs arising from lockdowns were not discussed. “This is the problem,” he said at the time. “If you empower all these independent people, you’re screwed.”

Then there are the troubling notes of Sunak’s comments made by Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser at the time of the pandemic. In a diary extract from 13 May 2021, Vallance noted a meeting at which Sunak “suddenly pipes up on incentives already in place. Argues that we should let this rip a bit.” Vallance also claimed in his diary that Sunak was pushing “very hard for a faster opening up and fuller opening up, getting rid of all restrictions”.

More pressing than anything, however, is the “eat out to help out” scheme, which went ahead without the knowledge of key advisers. Boris Johnson has claimed that chief medical officer Chris Whitty called the scheme “eat out to help the virus”. Some who lost loved ones in the pandemic squarely blame the scheme.

After a day of torment at the inquiry, Sunak’s parliamentary battle will begin in earnest on Tuesday.

Ultimately, some figures who have sat in the Commons since the Brexit vote are getting a horribly strong sense of deja vu. Sunak finds himself leading a party irreconcilably divided and in no mood to find common ground, just months away from an election. “What he ended up doing was trying to weld the positions of two sets of people together as best as you can,” said a former minister. “But the difficulty is, those two positions aren’t actually compatible.

“Usually, you have an element of ‘self-whipping’ that kicks in around this time, where people start to show an element of resolve and sense. That doesn’t seem to be evident.”