Rishi Sunak is fighting to save his flagship Rwanda policy – and his premiership – after a desperate defence of his new deportation bill failed to stop a growing revolt by Tory MPs on both sides of the party.
The beleaguered PM dodged questions about whether he could be forced to call a general election if he cannot get the bill through parliament, in the most significant political crisis he has faced at No 10.
Hardliners on the Tory right said they could rebel in a “existential” showdown vote on Tuesday, while moderates in the One Nation group remain “nervous” about backing the bill.
Mr Sunak was warned that he could even face a leadership vote soon if he “antagonised” more MPs into submitting no-confidence letters. Some MPs claimed almost two dozen letters have already been submitted to the Tories’ all-powerful 1922 committee – which requires 53 of them to hold a vote on his future.
The prime minister tried to face down right-wingers at a hastily-convened press conference, telling them their demands to opt out of all human rights law would see his controversial Rwanda scheme collapse.
But the Tory leader stopped stop of threatening to expel them if they defy him next week – rejecting the idea he will turn the bill into a “back me or sack me” confidence vote.
Sunak declined to say whether he will call an election if his bill is defeated— (PA Wire)
Accused by the opposition of being a “lame duck” losing control of his “sinking ship”, a tetchy Mr Sunak was forced to deny his government had become a “joke” – and appeared to plead with Labour to back his under-threat legislative plan.
Ducking questions on whether he would win support from Tory rebels, Mr Sunak said: “The real question when it comes to parliament… what are the Labour party going to do about this vote?”
Mr Sunak also claimed there was only “an inch” between him and bitterly-divided MPs – but hardliners on the right remain furious that he chose not to opt out of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
Dozens of right-wing MPs – including members of the 35-strong New Conservatives, the Common Sense Group and the European Research Group – have convened a “star chamber” to help decide before Tuesday if they should vote for the bill.
They are unimpressed by Mr Sunak’s claim that legal challenges by individual asylum seekers threatened with a one-way ticket to Rwanda will be “vanishingly rare”.
Sunak was rocked by the resignation of hardliner Robert Jenrick— (PA Wire)
One senior figure on the Tory right told The Independent that they were angry the bill allows for “spurious legal claims” that would see the courts “clogged up”.
And the leading MP warned Mr Sunak not to force their hand with a confidence vote. “It would be very foolish of him to make it a confidence vote, because it would antagonise people. They might then put a [no-confidence] letter in.”
Asked if the threshold of 53 no-confidence could be triggered, the MP said: “I think so. A badly watered-down bill will make people consider a letter. It’s existential for the prime minister to get this right.”
One right-wing Tory rebel said they knew the names of 18 MPs who had already submitted no-confidence letters to the 1922 committee, according to The Mirror.
Cabinet minister Chris Heaton-Harris played down the chances of Mr Sunak facing a vote on his leadership as “very unlikely”. And Tory chairman Richard Holden told reporters: “I think it’d be insanity to do that.”
Tory veteran Sir Charles Walker – former 1922 committee chairman – said an election would have to be called if a “ridiculous” vote in Mr Sunak’s leadership was triggered. “If the threshold of 50 or so letters was crossed then the idea of another leadership [vote] is a nonsense – we have to go straight to a general election,” he told the News Agents podcast.
Home secretary James Cleverly watching Sunak’s press conference— (PA)
Mr Sunak has to decide how much pressure to put on his MPs before Tuesday. Convention dictates that the PM would either resign or dissolve parliament and call an election if he loses such a vote made into a confidence issue in his government.
He also faces a major threat from the One Nation group of Tory moderates, which boasts of around 100 MPs. Centrists are not happy about the bill’s move to disapply the Human Rights Act, and the attempt to stop any court challenging ministers’ insistence that Rwanda is safe.
Senior moderates are understood to be undecided about how to vote on Tuesday. A source in the One Nation wing revealed that MPs were “very nervous” – and said the PM’s press conference claim that the courts could not stop ministers had only inflamed opinion.
Moderate MP Tobias Ellwood said he would not support the Rwanda bill if there is “any prospect” of breaking international laws. “We uphold international law. We don’t break it,” he told Times Radio – admitting Rwanda was “ripping our party in half”.
Mr Sunak said Robert Jenrick – a former Sunak ally who resigned on Wednesday – was “simply not right” to suggest the bill would fail, insisting its move to disapply the Human Rights Act “blocks every single reason that has ever been used to prevent flights”.
Suella Braverman denied ‘spreading poison’ to bring Sunak down— (PA Wire)
It came as sacked home secretary Suella Braverman piled more pressure on Thursday by saying “This bill will fail.” In a tense exchange with BBC Radio 4 host Nick Robinson, Ms Braverman denied trying to oust Mr Sunak by “spreading poison” in the Tory party.
One senior Tory MP loyal to Mr Sunak told The Independent that many were “appalled” by Ms Braverman’s attacks and “disappointed” in Mr Jenrick’s move.
“It’s a storm in a tea-cup,” the MP said on the prospect of right-wingers voting against the bill – predicting they would not be willing to bring the PM down over it. “I’ll be very surprised if they vote against. Why wouldn’t they back it?”
But George Osborne said the Tory civil wars had well and truly “reopened”. The former Tory chancellor told his Political Currency podcast: “[Mr Sunak] can’t now claim anymore to have stabilised things [after Boris Johnson and Liz Truss].”
Former No 10 strategist Dominic Cummings said Mr Sunak’s position was now “pure farce”. Asked if Mr Cummings was right to claim Rwanda would send more asylum seekers to the UK than the other way around, a No 10 spokesperson said: “No, we don’t think that’s right.”