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Sunak faces Tory meltdown as deputy chairs back Rwanda bill rebellion

<span>Composite: Alamy</span>
Composite: Alamy

Rishi Sunak is facing a Conservative meltdown over the Rwanda deportation bill after two deputy chairs said they would support rebel amendments aimed at blocking international human rights laws.

Lee Anderson and Brendan Clarke-Smith have defied the prime minister by backing rightwing challenges to the bill, which will be debated by parliament on Tuesday. They will join as many as 70 other MPs said to be considering abstaining or opposing the controversial legislation.

The high-profile rebellion on Monday evening of two “red wall” MPs will be regarded as a direct threat to Sunak’s authority. The prime minister will now have to contemplate sacking them from their party jobs.

The move came as Sunak attempted to limit the damage to the safety of Rwanda bill by threatening to ignore injunctions from the European court of human rights that block deportation flights to Rwanda.

Anderson, the MP for Ashfield who was appointed to the job last February, confirmed he will join a possible rebellion. He said he would be voting for amendments tabled by Robert Jenrick, who resigned as the immigration minister over the legislation, and the veteran Tory Sir Bill Cash.

“The Rwanda Bill. I have signed the Cash & Jenrick amendments. I will vote for them,” he wrote on X. Clarke-Smith, the MP for Bassetlaw, also confirmed he would vote for rebel amendments. Asked if he would be sacked, he replied: “We’ll see. Not for me to decide.”

They have been joined by Jane Stevenson, a parliamentary private secretary in the Department for Business and Trade, who also told a New Conservatives meeting she would back amendments.

Simon Clarke, a Tory MP and close ally of Liz Truss, told the News Agents podcast that he was “minded as things stand today to vote against” the Rwanda bill as he does not “believe it will work”, adding: “We should not march the British public up that hill again.”

Another Tory MP called for more rebels to back amendments to force Sunak from office. The former junior minister Andrea Jenkyns, who was sacked from government by Sunak, wrote on X: “Hopefully more to come and this will be accompanied with vote of no confidence letters to the 1922. So we can get a new and true Conservative leader.”

Government insiders still believe they will get through committee stage of the bill on Tuesday without amendment, although the key third reading vote on Wednesday is a steeper challenge as it would take just 29 Tory MPs to rebel, or 57 abstain, for it to fail.

One hardline source said that Downing Street is describing the right of the party as a spent force. “No 10 believes rebels are a ‘paper tiger’ and that they won’t follow through to vote against,” the source said.

A leading traditionalist figure said that they were surprised at the lack of movement from No 10. “There have been few, if any, attempts to reach out that I am aware of,” they said. “I think they may be underestimating the anger of backbenchers.”

Sunak, the home secretary, James Cleverly, and government aides have spent the weeks since they narrowly avoided a major rebellion on the bill meeting with Tory MPs who believe it is riddled with loopholes and needs to be hardened up for them to back it.

In a last-minute attempt to win over the party’s right, Sunak has toughened his rhetoric on rule 39, the so-called “pyjama injunctions” from the European court of human rights. Asked directly if he would overrule judges from Strasbourg, Sunak told GB News: “I won’t let a foreign court stop us from getting flights off and this deterrent working.

“There’s a clause in the bill that says, very specifically, that it is for ministers to decide whether to comply with rule 39 rulings, as they’re called. I would not have put that clause in the bill if I was not prepared to use it.

“Now, look, I don’t think Strasbourg will intervene because of the checks and balances in our system. And of course, there will be individual circumstances that people want us to consider on the facts.

“But if you’re asking me, you know, are there circumstances in which I’m prepared to ignore those rule 39s? Then yes, of course there are.”

In a further concession to the Tory right, No 10 has told MPs that Michael Tomlinson, the illegal immigration minister, will be appointed to handle any rulings from Strasbourg to ground flights.

Sunak’s aides hope that giving the former deputy chair of the hardline European Research Group the responsibility will assuage concerns on the right that the rule 39 injunctions will automatically be followed.

In an attempt to fast-track the process, the prime minister is reportedly planning to move 150 judges from the first tribunal to the upper tribunal, where they would hear appeals under the new law. Judges would also be paid extra to sit at evenings and weekends, the Times said.

Sunak’s room for manoeuvre is further limited by threats from the One Nation bloc of more than 100 moderate MPs, who have warned that if he accepts any rightwing amendments the bill could be in breach of international law, a red line for the attorney general, Victoria Prentis, and the justice secretary, Alex Chalk.

One former cabinet minister said: “If there’s any deals made with the right on amendments to the bill then we’re going to have a problem. If there’s any nonsense we’ll vote against it at third reading.”

However, they added: “The whips aren’t suggesting that we’re in the territory of this being a confidence vote in the prime minister. But if the PM is in danger then the likes of me will probably do what we did last time and allow it to go through.

“It won’t be with any enthusiasm but we recognise that there’s wider politics at play and it’s an election year.”

Sunak has rejected the hardline, “full fat” version of the Rwanda bill advocated by the former home secretary Suella Braverman, Jenrick and the so-called “five families” of the Tory right caucuses.

This would have resulted in all sections of the Human Rights Act being blocked and would have allowed ministers to ignore the European convention on human rights, denying people seeking asylum any chance to appeal against their deportation.

Sunak does not want to pursue this option because he believes that it would be a breach of the UK’s legal obligations under the ECHR.