It turns out that Sunak can do politics after all...

The government’s victory on the Rwanda bill by the surprisingly comfortable majority of 44 could mark a turn in the PM’s fortunes, John Rentoul writes

Wednesday 13 December 2023 08:09 GMT
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said his emergency Rwanda Bill will help him deliver his ‘stop the boats’ pledge (James Manning/PA)
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said his emergency Rwanda Bill will help him deliver his ‘stop the boats’ pledge (James Manning/PA) (PA Wire)

Rishi Sunak and Simon Hart, his chief whip, can count after all. They secured the first vote on the Rwanda bill with an unexpectedly comfortable majority of 44.

After all the big talk from Mark Francois, boss leader of the “five families” of anti-immigration Conservative MPs; from Suella Braverman, who called her prime minister “weak”; and from Robert Jenrick, who said the legislation would be ineffective – not a single Tory MP voted against the government. The ship of state sailed past the “rebels” with barely a bump.

The government, whose spinners had said the vote would be “tight”, and who had flown Graham Stuart back from the climate summit in the Gulf to heighten the sense of drama, won the expectations game so decisively that our assumptions about what will happen next have to be adjusted.

Now that the vote is done, those of us who are not in the Tory whips office can do the counting too. Labour MPs were first with the news from the division lobbies: there was not a single Tory in their lobby, and they thought that there was a small band of Tory MPs in the chamber, 12 to 15 of them, “sitting on their hands, keeping each other company”. One Labour MP said to me: “It was not a sign of strength.”

Part of the element of surprise in the vote is that the government’s majority is larger than it is widely reported to be. The official figure for the government’s “working majority” is 56. But five of the former Tory MPs who now sit as independents (Matt Hancock, Peter Bone, Bob Stewart, Bob Roberts and Scott Benton) voted with the government. Each of them adds one to the government total and subtracts one from the opposition total, which makes the government’s majority really 66. To cut that to 44 suggests – leaving aside MPs on both sides of the House given permission to be absent – that there were only 22 purposeful abstentions.

With that kind of margin, the government should be confident of getting the bill through the Commons. The “five families” of anti-immigration grouplets of Tory MPs might try to amend the bill to make it come even closer to breaking international law, but the government will just say no and challenge them to a re-match at third reading – the final Commons stage. There may be a few more brave abstentions then, and maybe even a vote or two against, but I doubt if there will be 44 of them.

And if it passes the Commons, it will pass the Lords. The peers will huff and complain, and puff and delay, but they won’t blow the house down.

In the end the bill was perfectly judged, so that it is just the right side of international law. The Lords cannot claim that some fundamental constitutional principle has been breached. They have to allow the will of the democratically elected house to prevail. Sunak has pitched the bill so that it just holds his party together in the Commons, and so it will get through the Lords.

Previously, it seemed as if he would have trouble at third reading, that he might have to make concessions to the “five families”, and that he would then have problems with his One Nation wing in the Commons and the rather larger One Nation grouping in the Lords.

Now he won’t. That is a significant triumph. But it is a political triumph. It won’t necessarily work in the courts and in the Channel. If Sunak gets his legislation, he then has to get the planes off the ground.

There will be legal challenges. The Supreme Court will be asked to rule on whether the Rwanda act, as it will then be, rectifies the problems that caused it to rule the scheme unlawful. Anyone who has read the court’s judgment must be sceptical about the government’s chances. There will be cases brought in Strasbourg. Sunak has tried to warn European Court of Human Rights judges away from issuing injunctions to stop flights, but they might still do it.

And even if he can get through all that, he will come up against the biggest problem with the scheme, which is that it might fail to deter a significant number of small boat crossings. If Rwanda can take only a few hundred asylum seekers, is that really going to have enough of a deterrent effect on the 30,000 or so who are expected to make the crossing this year? If 99 per cent of people who cross the Channel in small boats get to stay in the UK, anyone weighing up the risks of the crossing will be able to do their own arithmetic.

In the end, the politics might be brilliant, but the voters are not interested in the balancing of factions and the cleverness of the legal drafting. They will judge the policy by results. If the Rwanda act fails to “stop the boats”, the crisis of the Sunak government will just keep rolling on.

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