Tory fissures expose Rishi Sunak to leadership challenge chatter

Rwanda bill causes fractures among moderate and right-wing Conservatives and threatens to further disunite party

Rishi Sunak’s authority has been openly challenged for the first time since he became Prime Minister. AFP
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For the past year, it appeared that the Conservative Party had steadied following the turmoil of Boris Johnson's and Liz Truss’s failed premierships, presenting a united front under Rishi Sunak’s leadership.

Yet the Rwanda deportation saga has detonated disastrously for Mr Sunak, resurrecting the buried ghosts of no-confidence letters and leadership challenges.

Mr Sunak’s authority has, for the first time, been openly challenged, with his hard-right former home secretary Suella Braverman stating he was leading the Conservatives into “electoral oblivion”.

This came on the same day his once-loyal immigration minister Robert Jenrick dramatically resigned over the Rwanda deportation policy, exposing the deep wounds in the Tories that have never really healed since the Brexit vote seven years ago.

A reasonable, honest and hard-working politician, Mr Sunak is seen more as a highly competent bank manager than a trailblazing ruthless commander, and those on the hard right are hungrily eyeing his vulnerability.

Crumbling coalition

The Conservative Party has always been a broad church, housing the liberal One Nation Tories as well as the right-wing Brexiteer, anti-immigration types. That unity is now under threat of imploding in the Rwanda bill that aims to deport failed asylum seekers to the African country.

“Unity has been held together by flimsy wet string for quite some time, probably since the Brexit referendum,” one backbencher told The National. “Rishi has also made a complete mess of Rwanda, making it a die in a ditch issue in a clumsy attempt to appeal to the right-wingers.”

A drift rightward, largely caused by the impact of migration from Africa and the Middle East, has proved impossible for Mr Sunak to control. Migration was also something that the Tories had promised to curtail but instead record numbers have arrived.

It suggests too that global migration is continuing to impact politics with the rise of right-wing parties across Europe, including the recent election victory of anti-Islamist Geert Wilders in the Netherlands.

Rwanda rift

Mr Sunak’s dilemma was either to concede to the hard-right and discard all Britain’s human rights treaties to enforce the Rwanda deportations without legal challenges, or go as far as he legally could without breaking the agreements in the hope that this would keep the One Nation caucus on side.

Unfortunately there is a danger that he has displeased both sides.

Tobias Ellwood, MP, a One Nation Tory, made it very clear to The National that he would not back legislation that intruded on human rights. “I simply cannot support anything that suggests we bypass international law,” he said.

A right-wing MP argued that the bill had “a number of flaws” including Section Four which allows people to claim in court that Rwanda is not a safe country for them because of particular circumstances. An example given is someone who is physically unable to swallow malaria pills.

“Also, some leftish Conservatives want to put the bill down altogether,” he added.

But the reality may well be that all sides collectively hold their noses and vote through the bill’s second reading on Tuesday in the hope of amending it later on.

However, the legislation could face serious difficulty getting through the House of Lords. Lord Edward Garnier, a former Tory solicitor general, said parliament was deciding that Rwanda was a safe country to deport people to when the evidence suggested otherwise.

‘Decomposing in power’

The clash emphasises the growing rift in the Conservatives that could well turn into a full breach.

“We’re decomposing in power,” said a centrist Tory. “I’m not sure how it holds together now because ideologically something very toxic has grown in the party where the rule of law no longer matters, where might is right.”

While Mr Garnier described Mr Sunak as an “honourable, decent and hardworking prime minister” he was juggling with dissenting Conservatives “who are deliberately trying to make his life difficult”.

“It’s sad that he's been placed in this position because it's almost unmendable.”

Do we have a Rishi problem?

At the emergency press conference in Downing Street on Thursday, called following Mr Jenrick’s shock resignation, Mr Sunak appeared, unusually for him, both irritable and rattled.

That opened the doors in the corridors and tea rooms of Westminster for discussion of a leadership challenge – Tory MPs have become well-versed in deposing their commanders.

While a handful of no-confidence letters have been submitted to the 1922 Committee, even with the current heightened tensions there does not appear a serious appetite for a fourth prime minister in two years.

“I think people will wait until the election is lost, they'll let Rishi lose it and blame everything on him,” said the centrist Tory. “No one particularly wants a lost election in their 30 seconds of being prime minister.”

The right-wing MP suggested there could well be a vote of no confidence if the Rwanda bill fails, although Mr Sunak would win it.

There is also a drastic option Mr Sunak can take, or at least threaten, if the chaos and disloyalty go unchecked. The date to call a general election in is his power alone and while the Conservatives know they will almost certainly lose it’s a question of by how much as a disunited party going to the polls in early 2024 would be election suicide.

It is more likely, the centrist Tory argued, that Mr Sunak will “probably want to clock up two years as prime minister on his epitaph” with an election next autumn.

Farage factor

While the bloodletting runs, a certain figure is causing both anxiety and excitement in Tory ranks.

The master populist debater Nigel Farage is currently on the television show I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here! in the Australian jungle, cut off from all communications.

With his profile somewhat enhanced – although some would say character flaws have been exposed too – the Brexit architect and anti-immigrant tub-thumper has survived to the last five contestants, demonstrating some popularity among the voting British public.

There is a suggestion that he could be given a winnable Red Wall seat in northern England and return to the Conservatives with the prospect of one day leading it.

“We would welcome Mr Farage, he knows what he is doing,” said the right-wing MP. But Mr Ellwood has made it clear he would not remain in the Conservatives if led by Mr Farage.

The split within the party does not threaten to subside. “It’s death by a thousand cuts,” said one political observer, and members feel that it is plunging towards an election meltdown.

“It's been rubbish for so long that we’ve become acclimatised to it being rubbish,” said one MP. “There's a point at which you get used to just plummeting.”

Updated: December 11, 2023, 12:01 AM