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Defiant Rishi Sunak faces down rebels to win crunch Rwanda vote

Majority of mutinous Tories retreat to plot another day as just 11 vote against PM's flagship policy

Kate Devlin,Adam Forrest
Wednesday 17 January 2024 23:02 GMT
Rwanda bill passes third reading by 320 votes to 276

Rishi Sunak has faced down rebels within his own party to win a showdown Commons vote as he fights to save his flagship Rwanda policy.

MPs passed the embattled prime minister’s controversial deportation bill by 320 votes to 276, after most Conservative rebels “wimped out” of a threatened revolt.

Losing the vote could have imperilled Mr Sunak’s leadership and even sparked a general election, as Labour mocked the Tories for what it called their “farcical” divisions over asylum policy.

But in the end just 11 Tory MPs voted against, including ex-home secretary Suella Braverman and former immigration minister Robert Jenrick.

The PM still faces a lengthy battle over the legislation in the House of Lords and the courts, however, as the government refused to say when flights to the African country might finally take off.

It came as:

  • Rwanda suggested it could “refund” some of the £240m cost if no asylum seekers are ever sent there
  • Rebels undermined the PM by publishing their own last-minute alternative to his Rwanda bill
  • Lee Anderson did not vote against the bill – despite resigning his top Tory role in protest only 24 hours previously
  • Mr Jenrick claimed Mr Sunak didn’t have “the guts” to throw a policy “grenade”
  • Sir Keir Starmer compared the Tories to “hundreds of bald men scrapping over a broken comb”
  • Home secretary James Cleverly said the legislation would “end the merry-go-round of legal challenges” by migrants trying to avoid deportation.
Rishi Sunak forced his bill through the Commons at third reading stage (PA Media)

The prime minister’s allies believe they have scored a decisive victory over right-wing Tories who have been a constant thorn in his side.

Twice in the space of weeks, right-wing rebels have boasted they are about to inflict a major defeat on the government over the Rwanda plan only for the threats to prove empty on both occasions.

Before the result, Mr Sunak received another boost when Rwandan president Paul Kagame said he would return money already paid by the British government if no migrants were sent there from Britain.

The estimated £400m paid by the UK to Rwanda so far before the scheme has got off the ground has been the main focus of Labour’s attack on the government.

However, Mr Sunak did suffer a rebellion on an ultimately unsuccessful amendment to the Bill, as 59 Tory MPs backed a proposal designed to allow UK ministers to ignore emergency injunctions by European judges.

On Tuesday, Mr Sunak suffered a major blow when two deputy chairs of the Tory party resigned and 60 of his own MPs rebelled by voting to toughen the bill.

But in the end even those who resigned over the issue, Lee Anderson and Brendan Clarke-Smith, did not oppose the bill at its third and final reading in the Commons.

As the revolt melted away in the hours before the vote, rebel Tory MPs held an eleventh-hour meeting to decide the way forward. A source within the rebel camp told The Independent: “The mood of the meeting was to support the government.”

They added: “People feel the bill is better than the status quo, even if it is not perfect. And the risk is, if they vote it down, it could bring the government down – and they were not prepared to do that. The feeling is that changing leader again would make us look ridiculous.”

Robert Jenrick was one of only 11 rebels who finally voted against the government (PA Archive)

In a bid to repair splits in the party, James Cleverly told MPs he had “respect” for the Tory rebels. He also told MPs the legislation would “end the merry-go-round of legal challenges” by migrants trying to avoid deportation.

But Tory moderates expressed anger at the damage caused. One senior MP said rebels looked foolish for “talking down and trying to kill off” a bill that they now need to tell voters might work.

The Sunak ally said: “It would have been a calamitous embarrassment to lose. But having senior people in the party saying this bill won’t work has not been the best way to project competence.”

A close ally of Mr Sunak’s said it was inevitable that Tory right-wingers would “wimp out” of taking part in a revolt that could have triggered a general election, in which the party would be set to face a thumping from Labour.

After the vote, Matt Warman, a leading member of the One Nation caucus of Tory MPs, appealed for unity behind the bill as he called on Tory MPs to “talk about other issues that matter to our constituents, from the NHS to the economy and beyond”.

One former cabinet minister said the events of the last few days would do nothing to help the party’s dire poll ratings in the run-up to this year’s general election. “This just proves everything people already think about the government,” they said.

Starmer compared Tories to ‘hundreds of bald men scrapping over broken comb’ (PA)

Earlier, anger spilled over in the Commons, with leading Tory moderate Sir Robert Neill attacking the rebels for their “ridiculously bad politics”.

But defiant backbenchers offered a final warning to their party leader of the consequences of failing to toughen the bill.

Mr Jenrick said that, as night follows day, “we will find ourselves in exactly the same situation we were in in the summer of 2022” – when a Rwanda deportation flight was stopped.

Suella Braverman criticised the government’s efforts to tackle the small boats crisis, saying this bill was ministers’ “third time round” the issue, and adding: “The British people are fed up. They have run out of patience ... and this is our last chance to get it right.”

Former business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg, who backed the Bill in the end, said afterwards: "Without the amendments it's unlikely to prove effective in my view in the time available before a general election, but I'd be delighted to be proved wrong."

In a desperate bid to reassure the Tory right-wing rebels, Mr Sunak’s illegal migration minister Michael Tomlinson said ministers were considering tweaking the civil service code to remind officials to follow ministerial decisions.

The government then shared an exchange of letters between top officials at the Home Office and Cabinet Office confirming the government had scrapped guidance for civil servants saying they should obey injunctions from the European court.

Instead, civil servants must now refer any rule 39 injunctions for a ministerial decision immediately. But many right-wing rebels were unimpressed. Mr Jenrick said the attorney general had previously advised ministers they could not ignore injunctions from the European court.

During a bruising PMQs Labour MPs jeered the PM as party leader Sir Keir Starmer said Mr Sunak had been “brutally exposed by his own MPs yet again” and that the Tories were in “open revolt” over Rwanda.

He said the party was “tearing itself apart”, comparing the Conservatives to “hundreds of bald men scrapping over a single broken comb”.

A government analysis has suggested the cost of sending a single person seeking asylum to Rwanda could be £169,000. Labour MP Jess Phillips said MPs should feel “shame” for voting for a policy when they had “no idea” how much it would eventually cost.

Earlier the Rwandan president raised eyebrows by offering to repay potentially hundreds of millions of pounds if the Sunak government is unable to deport any asylum seekers. He told the BBC at the Davos summit that the £240m already committed is “only going to be used if those people will come”.

The Rwandan government’s spokesperson later said it would consider a request if the UK government “wishes to request a refund of the portion of the funding”. Labour’s Yvette Cooper said the government should “seize the chance” to get the money back.

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