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Tories on edge of precipice as Sunak grapples with Rwanda bill rebellion

<span>Photograph: Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament/AFP/Getty Images

Rishi Sunak was the most junior of ministers when Theresa May faced her worst Brexit ructions, but as he battles Commons votes, endless amendments and mutinous Conservative factions, the prime minister might have some retrospective sympathy for his predecessor-but-two.

The parallels do not end there. With Brexit largely viewed as completed, Sunak’s Rwanda deportation bill has become emblematic of what many Tory MPs see as the party’s main ideological battleground: migration, and most specifically, small boats.

To extend the comparison one more time, much as May led a party that almost unanimously embraced departure from the EU, however reluctantly in some cases, virtually all current Tories accept the basic premise of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda, at least in public.

The Conservatives are thus, once again, mired in what a Freudian-minded backbencher might term the political narcissism of small differences and at risk of implosion over amendments to the text of a bill or treaty that about 95% of the voting population would struggle to distinguish between.

However, while May faced a never-ending series of top-level ministerial resignations, Sunak’s internal discipline quandary has, thus far, been a bit more lower league: a pair of Conservative party deputy chairs, Lee Anderson and Brendan Clarke-Smith.

The fact that both very publicly announced they were signing up to amendments intended to toughen up the bill left Sunak with the complex issue of either ignoring the disloyalty, which would leave him looking very weak, or sacking them.

The second option risked him facing the unredacted ire of both, notably Anderson, who has an inflammatory turn of phrase and a route to the Tory faithful via his £100,000-a-year presenting gig with GB News.

In the end both resigned – whether this followed pressure from No 10 remains to be seen – via a conciliatory joint letter that pledged their complete support to Sunak except, obviously, on the bill.

Similarly, the government did not give way over any of the amendments, indicating Sunak plans to tough things out, at least for now.

This is the tactic May used, and we all know how that ended. But Sunak does have one slightly paradoxical trump card nestled up a snugly tailored sleeve: the sheer vulnerability of his political position.

In 2019, the Conservative Brexit ultras not only disliked and mistrusted May, but believed that if they got rid of her then the party might do electorally better under Boris Johnson, as turned out to be the case.

This time, if the rebels go too far, the most likely outcome is a swift election and thus political oblivion for them and for many dozens of their colleagues and friends.

A crunch point will come when MPs vote on the third reading of the Rwanda bill, which is likely to be on Wednesday evening. If Sunak faces a potentially significant rebellion, some allies are arguing he should characterise it as a confidence vote, meaning a loss would bring down the government.

This seems unlikely, in part as Sunak will know that the self-styled “five families” of the Tory right traditionally overpromise and underdeliver when it comes to Commons mutinies. And thus, the most likely outcomes remain either a fudge over amendments or a damp squib of a rebellion.

But as observers of the post-2016 Conservative party know only too well, rationality is by no means guaranteed and events can escalate swiftly, with mounting backbench anger toppling May and Johnson within weeks, and Liz Truss in days.

This time, however, even the most vehement rebel will realise that if the threshold of 53 MPs’ letters of no confidence is accidentally reached, then rather than another fresh start the Tories would face a most likely irresistible public clamour for an election.

They also all know how this would end. Monday’s Daily Telegraph constituency-extrapolated mega-poll gave Labour a projected 120-seat majority, one viewed by many pundits as an underestimate, even without the context of a snap election forced by Tory splits.

Sunak does not have to spell this out. He, and all his MPs, know where they are: on the very edge of a precipice. Can the prime minister guide his troops back from the edge, and not forward into the abyss? We will find out soon enough.