Rwanda vote: Rishi Sunak narrowly avoids Tory rebellion as MPs back bill

The vote was as much about the future of the Prime Minister's leadership as the outlook for UK migration

Rishi Sunak faces a showdown with rebels in parliament on Tuesday. Getty Images
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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak overcame dissent from the right wing of his party on Tuesday as MPs approved a new bill to authorise deportations to Rwanda after rebels abstained from the vote.

Mr Sunak said he would work to put his emergency legislation into law “so that we can get flights going to Rwanda and stop the boats” after winning the crunch vote.

It came after Mr Sunak hosted an emergency breakfast with about 20 right-wing Conservative MPs as he sought to avert a mass rebellion against the plan.

The efforts to bring people on side worked, with MPs approving the bill at second reading by 313 votes to 269, giving the government a winning majority of 44.

Dozens abstained but no Tory MP voted against the bill, with former party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith and former business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg among those to back it.

Mark Francois, chairman of the European Research Group (ERG) of Eurosceptic Tories, announced ahead of the Commons vote that his group and four other right-wing factions – the self-described "five families" – would be abstaining, with a view to putting forward amendments early next year.

The other factions include the New Conservatives, Common Sense Group, Conservative Growth Group and Northern Research Group.

The ERG leader said Mr Sunak had told colleagues he was "prepared to entertain tightening the bill" and that, if the Prime Minister does not accept changes to ensure that happens, then the five caucuses "reserve the right to vote against" the government at the next stage.

A Tory rebel source told the PA news agency: "This bill has been allowed to live another day.

"But without amendments it will be killed next month. It is now up to the government to decide what it wants to do."

On Wednesday, the morning after the vote, Home Secretary James Cleverly said it was "absolutely wrong" to say that a lot of Tories do not want the bill to work and insisted the Conservative Party is united in its desire to get the legislation right.

When it was put to him that right-wing Conservatives would vote the legislation down, the Home Secretary told Sky News: "That's your assertion, I don't agree.

"It is part of, but not the only part, of a range of measures that we are taking."

Election ahead

The first major political crisis Rishi Sunak faced in his near 14-month tenure as prime minister has stoked fears of an early general election or indeed yet another Conservative leadership contest.

Key to the dissent were the right-wing Conservatives arguing that Section Four of the bill allows migrants to claim in court that Rwanda is not a safe country for them due to particular circumstances.

This raises major constitutional issues that will need to be resolved in the courts with the bill that will remove “almost all grounds” for asylum seekers to fight deportation.

The central strategy of the Rwanda deportation is to deter asylum seekers from heading to the French coast to make the risky journey across the English Channel in rubber dinghies, by persuading them their voyage will ultimately be in vain.

If they arrive illegally, they will be removed to the Central African country, with the possibility of being sent back to their original home.

Brexiteers’ resurrection

The opposition against the Rwanda bill was largely led by the ERG, the vehemently Brexiteer grouping of about 30 MPs.

These so-called Spartans – MPs who would fight to the bitter end – ultimately managed to scupper the soft-Brexit legislation of Theresa May’s government in 2019.

That led to her downfall as prime minister and grim Tory infighting that ultimately went to the Supreme Court, whose judges declared Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament – sending MPs home – unlawful.

That ruling set teeth on edge in the ERG and led to some choice commentary in the press that prompted threats against the judges.

But it was the Supreme Court, made up of 12 judges, that also struck down the Rwanda legislation, ruling the African country an unsafe place to send failed asylum seekers.

Until Mr Sunak unveiled his tough new legislation to resurrect the Rwanda plan last week – in which parliament would unilaterally declare the country safe – the ERG had been largely irrelevant in government politics.

Rwanda bill on a knife's edge

With Brexit achieved and the government once having an 80-seat majority, the ERG’s voice was weakened. But with numerous by-election defeats that majority, while sizeable, now stands at 56 and is vulnerable to ERG whims.

Cop28 recall

Downing Street’s desperation to win the vote was reflected in the recall of Minister for Climate Change Graham Stuart.

He was pulled out of Cop28 talks in Dubai to fly black on Tuesday in time for the vote. During the Commons debate, one opposition MP suggested Mr Sunak was putting his political fortunes ahead of those of the planet.

Several other MPs on their way to the airport, including some heading to the Caribbean, were also recalled, demonstrating the government realised it needed every vote it could get.

UK Supreme Court rules Rwanda plan unlawful – video

UK Supreme Court rules Rwanda plan unlawful

UK Supreme Court rules Rwanda plan unlawful

Lasting glory?

If the Prime Minister had lost the vote, it would have been the first government defeat on specific legislation since 1986 – Mrs May used the tactic of withdrawing a Brexit vote when she felt it would be defeated.

The loss of Mr Sunak’s authority would be significant and further throw the Conservative Party into self-defeating factions.

It is perhaps the ERG Spartans' outlook that they know they are going to perish, as did their 300 namesakes at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BCE, that they might have entered a death pact.

Their ringleader, Bill Cash, has already announced he will stand down as MP at the next election, so political self-immolation might register some lasting glory.

That might merit a historical footnote but the continuing agitation expected in the new year could also hasten the demise of the Conservatives, whose trajectory towards electoral defeat, if not oblivion, is increasingly assured.

Updated: December 13, 2023, 8:18 AM