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Rishi Sunak in last-ditch bid to win over Tory MPs on his Rwanda bill

Tory deputy chair Lee Anderson said to be ready to back hardliners – as right-wingers warn PM he could face defeat

Archie Mitchell,Adam Forrest
Monday 15 January 2024 16:49 GMT
Tory MP Simon Clarke vows to vote against Rishi Sunak's flagship Rwanda policy

Rishi Sunak is staging a last-ditch bid to win over right-wing Conservatives MPs threatening to defeat his Rwanda deportation legislation.

The PM faces a mounting rebellion over the flagship immigration policy, with Tory deputy chairman Lee Anderson poised to back rebel amendments to the bill.

Mr Sunak is also said to have been warned by cabinet minister Kemi Badenoch that the bill does not go far enough, ahead of crucial votes this Tuesday and Wednesday.

But Mr Sunak came out fighting on Monday insisting that his plan is the “toughest” bill that “anyone has ever seen” in cracking down on illegal migration.

Some right-wingers have threatened to vote against the government if Mr Sunak does not back down – with one telling The Independent the chances of a seismic defeat are “under-priced”.

The PM said he was still open to listening to rebel MPs. “I’m talking to all my colleagues,” the Tory leader said, as he looks to avoid a Commons defeat that would plunge his leadership into crisis.

His official spokesman refused to “get into” whether Mr Sunak felt he had the votes needed for his bill to pass or not. But he said the government was still “open to considering” amendments to the Rwanda bill in the next 48 hours.

Sunak is due to address MPs about the Houthi air strikes (PA Wire)

Senior Tory rebel Simon Clarke – a minister under Liz Truss – vowed to vote against the government at the crucial third reading stage on Wednesday if the government does not back down and accept amendments.

Mr Clarke pounced upon dire YouGov polling which showed the Tories were facing a wipeout, to warn that the party could be “destroyed” at the general election unless it takes tougher action on ssmall boats.

Mr Clarke told the BBC: “I’ve been clear with the whips, if the bill goes forward unamended I will be unable to offer it my support.”

Almost 60 right-wingers have now backed amendments by ex-immigration minister Robert Jenrick, with votes on the proposed changes to come on Tuesday and Wednesday.

As well as trying to block any role for the European court in deportation cases, Mr Jenrick and others have demanding Mr Sunak further tightens the grounds on which illegal migrants can bring individual claims.

It would take just 29 Tory MPs to overturn Mr Sunak’s 56-seat parliamentary majority and defeat the government at the final Commons vote on Wednesday – if enough right-wingers are angry about their amendments being ignored by the government.

One senior right-wing Tory MP involved in discussions said there was a “growing feeling it is better not to have any bill than a bill that doesn’t work”.

They told The Independent that the chances of a seismic defeat for Mr Sunak on Wednesday were “under-priced” – claiming 29 Tories could decide to vote against the government even if threw the PM’s leadership into crisis.

Ex-immigration minister Robert Jenrick quit last month, dubbing Sunak’s bill ‘weak’ (PA Wire)

Hardliners in the New Conservatives and the European Research Group (ERG) will meet later on Monday to discuss their amendments. Miriam Cates, co-founder of the New Conservatives, said Mr Sunak’s bill “won’t stop the boats” and vowed to vote for the Jenrick proposals.

John Hayes, chair of the Common Sense Group, told The Independent: “There is significant support for the amendments – it’s more than I think the government were anticipating. I’m hopeful the government will listen, and we can persuade ministers to think again. There should be room for compromise.”

But other leading Conservatives played down the rhetoric of the right-wing hardliners, and predicted less than 29 MPs would vote against the govenrment.

One senior Tory MP – a hardliner on immigration who is sympathetic to the Jenrick amendments – told The Independent: “I suspect the rebellion will fade away in the end and the prime minister will get it through pretty much unchanged.”

They added: “Most realise to defeat the government to bring down one of its major policies on this would be political madness. We’re only months away from an election.”

Other right-wing rebels who have threatened to vote against the bill include former home secretary Suella Braverman, who told GB News it is “better to defeat this bill … and start again with a new bill that will work”.

Lee Anderson could back amendments to Rishi Sunak’s Rwanda Bill (Jacob King/PA) (PA Wire)

Grilled by broadcasters on the brewing rebellion, Mr Sunak refused to say whether he would fire Mr Anderson as the deputy Tory chair if he were to vote against the government this week.

In an apparent bid to keep right-wingers happy, Mr Sunak talked up his willingness to ignore any injunctions from the European Court of Human Rights on Rwanda deportations flights.

The Tory leader emphasised the part of the bill that gives ministers the power to decide whether to comply with Strasbourg court judgements.

He told GB News: “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.”

Suella Braverman has said she will vote against the Government’s Rwanda Bill next week if there are ‘no improvements’ (Justin Tallis/PA) (PA Wire)

Mr Sunak staved off an initial revolt last month over the Rwanda policy, which is designed to allow the government to deport migrants to the east African nation, a key plank of the PM’s “stop the boats” pledge.

Tory deputy chairman Mr Anderson is said to have told government whips he will support rebel amendments to the bill. One MP familiar with Mr Anderson’s thinking told The Times that he told whips the government must support the amendments or lose him as deputy chairman.

Ms Badenoch is said to have warned Mr Sunak’s chief of staff Liam Booth-Smith at a meeting in Downing Street of the political consequences of the Rwanda Bill failing. A source told The Times that she thought a “serious rebellion” had to be accommodated.

However, Mr Sunak is not expected to support any of the amendments and a source close to the PM has said there is “limited room for manoeuvre” in changing the bill.

Asked during a visit to Essex whether Tory rebels would be disciplined if they vote for amendments, Mr Sunak said: “I’m confident that the bill we have got is the toughest that anyone has ever seen and it will resolve this issue once and for all.”

It camer as the i reported that six people from Rwanda have been granted asylum in Britain since the government signed its deportation deal with the country in 2022.

It means more asylum seekers have arrived in Britain from Rwanda than vice versa since the agreement was signed, which stands at zero, and calls into question Mr Sunak’s plans to legally rule Rwanda a “safe” country.

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