Rishi Sunak wins Rwanda vote as he staves off mass Tory rebellion – for now

Tory MPs warn PM over next stage of flagship deportation bill, as William Hague cautions: We may never win back power

Kate Devlin,Archie Mitchell
Wednesday 13 December 2023 08:57 GMT
New illegal immigration minister calls Rwanda plan a 'moral imperative'

A wounded Rishi Sunak has secured victory in a crunch vote on his flagship Rwanda policy – but his political future remains under threat ahead of a new year showdown on the issue.

The prime minister faces another battle with his MPs within weeks after parliament backed his emergency legislation by 313 votes to 269.

As he fought to keep his controversial deportation scheme alive, Mr Sunak even flew a minister back from the Cop28 climate change conference in Dubai to vote.

But he now faces a struggle to pass the bill at its next hurdle after Tory rebels, many of whom abstained instead of voting it down, warned they could not support it without significant changes.

In another extraordinary day at Westminster:

• Mr Sunak tried to woo rebels over bacon sarnies in No 10

• Home secretary James Cleverly said the new legislation was “very much pushing at the edge of the envelope” of international law

• Behind closed doors, the prime minister promised Tory MPs he was willing to “tighten” the legislation, those who attended a breakfast summit said

• Rebels expressed frustration at the lack of a clear commitment to amend the bill

• Former Tory leader Lord Hague urged his party to “pull themselves together” before the vote, warning there was “no guarantee” it would ever return to government if it loses the next general election

In a moment of high drama just minutes before the vote, five groups of Tory MPs on the right of the party announced they would not support the bill.

However, they announced they would mainly abstain at this stage and try to amend the bill.

But they put the prime minister on notice that they could vote to kill the plan if it is not hardened enough.

Speaking on behalf of the group, Mark Francois, the chair of the European Research Group (ERG), said: “We reserve the right to vote against it at third reading, that is collectively what we have decided.”

In response, Mr Sunak said: “The British people should decide who gets to come to this country – not criminal gangs or foreign courts. That’s what this bill delivers”.

In a move that risks riling the rebels, Mr Cleverly tweeted after the vote: “Parliament has spoken.”

Former party leader Iain Duncan Smith said he had backed the government but indicated he reserved the right to vote against the plan at its third reading.

Asked if he could pull his support, he told Sky News: “I want to see the government listen and engage … so we’ll see where it goes.”

Lists released by parliament suggested that no Tory MP voted against the bill. But high-profile names were among 38 Tory abstentions including former home secretary Suella Braverman and Robert Jenrick, the immigration minister who quit in protest at the plan last week.

Before the vote, Labour had said that defeat, the first time a government would have lost on the second reading of a bill since the mid-1980s, should lead to a general election.

Just 57 Tory MPs abstaining, or 29 voting against, the bill would have been enough to defeat the government.

But Mr Sunak now faces an uphill battle to get his legislation through its next Commons stage.

MPs traditionally allow bills to pass at second reading to allow them to be amended or improved, before casting their final judgement at the third reading of the bill.

Even before the latest vote, Tory MPs warned they could sink the legislation.

Former minister David Jones, deputy chairman of the ERG, said: “We believe we have the numbers, if necessary, to stop the bill progressing.”

To add to his woes, Mr Sunak is now under pressure from two warring sides of his party. MPs on the right are threatening to vote against the bill if he does not amend it, while those on the more moderate wing threatening to pull their support if he does.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak has called on MPs to back the plans
Prime minister Rishi Sunak has called on MPs to back the plans (PA Wire)

Sir Bob Neill, the Tory MP and chairman of the Commons justice committee, said his support “would go” if that happened “because for me it goes as close to the wind as one can constitutionally do”. To go any further would be “unconservative, and then I would not support it”, he added.

One former cabinet minister who supported Mr Sunak’s leadership campaign warned that “it is hard to see how these issues [between the warring factions] get resolved” before the next crucial Commons vote. Asked how it would end for his party leader, he added: “Badly.”

Amid the infighting, another Tory grandee, Sir Edward Leigh, warned Tory MPs: “A house divided is a house that is going to be destroyed.”

And a former minister, Jackie Doyle-Price, accused her party of “stupid” rows that would benefit only the Labour Party.

Mr Sunak spent all day trying to head off a major Commons rebellion over his plan.

He pleaded with Tory MPs to back the bill and tried to woo rebels over bacon sarnies at a breakfast meeting in Downing Street, as well as during one-to-one meetings.

In a social media post, Mr Sunak publicly appealed to his MPs to support him, saying: “To stop the boats, we need to back this bill.”

As he tried to persuade MPs in the Commons, Mr Cleverly said: “The actions that we are taking, whilst novel, whilst very much pushing at the edge of the envelope, are within the framework of international law.”

‘Novel actions’: home secretary James Cleverly
‘Novel actions’: home secretary James Cleverly (Reuters)

Mr Sunak was forced to bring forward the emergency legislation after the UK Supreme Court ruled his plans unlawful.

The prime minister has pinned his hopes on a new treaty with Rwanda, which is designed to guarantee refugees are not wrongly sent back to countries they have fled, and the new legislation.

But he suffered a shock blow last week when the immigration minister Robert Jenrick, who would have taken the bill through parliament, resigned, warning it did not go far enough and would not work.

Others on the Tory right have also called for it to go further and override the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), to ensure it cannot be blocked by judges in Strasbourg.

Jonathan Gullis, a member of the New Conservatives grouping who attended the breakfast summit, said he had “grave concerns” the legislation would mean “we will end up being bogged down with individual claims that mean that we’ll see very few people put on the plane to Rwanda”.

One MP who attended the breakfast expressed frustration at the prime minister’s approach, saying: “I would love to know what he means by ‘tightening’ the bill.”

Earlier, Downing Street had rejected calls to pull the bill from Tory rebels, who warned it “needs major surgery or replacement”.

Delaying the vote would have raised uncomfortable parallels with ousted former Tory leader Theresa May who pulled her “meaningful vote” Brexit legislation as she struggled to get it through the Commons.

Before the vote, Mr Jenrick was understood to be planning to vote against the legislation unless the government committed to amending it.

He pushed for the ability to overrule European Court of Human Rights injunctions in a speech to the Commons, telling MPs: “This bill could be so much better. Let’s make it better.”

A No 10 source said the government would “continue to listen to and engage with colleagues across the party” on the bill as it goes through parliament.

Former cabinet minister Sir Simon Clarke warned Rishi Sunak that the bill risked the government failing to “deliver on our promise to stop the boats” for a third time.

The bill allows ministers to disapply the Human Rights Act but does not go as far as overriding the ECHR, a key demand from hardliners.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer dismissed the Rwanda plan as a “gimmick” and piece of political “performance art” and accused the Conservative Party of behaving more like Donald Trump than Winston Churchill in its obsession over the scheme.

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