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14 December 2023

When will Tory centrists stand up to the right?

By voting for the Rwanda bill, One Nation MPs have dragged their party further to the extremes.

By David Gauke

The Safety of Rwanda Bill comfortably passed at its second reading in the House of Commons this week but it exposed how the parliamentary Conservative Party is divided into three camps. For different reasons, none of the camps want the bill to be enacted, with the possible exception of the camp that failed to vote for it. Welcome to the mad world of the modern Conservative Party.

The first camp – comprised of members of the One Nation Group – dislike the legislation. They think it is absurd to make laws that determine a point of fact (that Rwanda is a “safe country”), especially when the Supreme Court has decided otherwise; that the bill undermines the proper role of the courts; and that the government is, at best, within a whisker of breaching international law. The legislation is, however, not as objectionable as some of the versions floated. This was enough for the One Nation MPs to vote for the bill.

The second camp, at the opposite end of the party, believes the bill is inadequate. It fails to meet their objective of ensuring there is no recourse to the courts at all for anyone who arrives in this country and is set to be dispatched to Rwanda. They are absolutist on this; if parliament says up is down or that a dog is a cat or that an unsafe country is a safe country, that should be the end of the matter. Never mind what those uppity, legal busybodies might think. As for the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) obstructing the policy, that is an affront to the will of the people, the Brexit referendum and all that they hold dear.

This latter point is, in fact, more important to this camp than sending anyone to Rwanda. It knows that the Rwandan government has said it will abandon a deal that breaks international law (though they suspect that the UK government may have put Rwanda up to this). They also know that a bill which removes all access to the courts may struggle to pass the Commons and will certainly fail in the Lords. The current row about Rwanda is merely a battle; the war is over leaving the European Convention on Human Rights. Damaging the credibility of the Prime Minister and the government is a price worth paying (or, perhaps, a collateral benefit) for the right. The purpose is to make the case against the ECHR and international law in general.

Given this, the right – for all their protestations – will be pleased that the bill passed its second reading and will look forward to having all the same rows in the new year at the committee stage. As long as there is drama, they are happy.

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The third camp consists of those in the middle, including Rishi Sunak. Even he, however, must be aware of the problems that would follow if the bill was approved. The position of the Tory right is absurd but they are right to note that a migrant will be able to obtain an interim judgement from the ECHR to prevent them from being put on a plane to Rwanda. Under clause 5 of the bill, it is for a minister to decide whether to comply with any interim judgement. Ignore it and the attorney general and lord chancellor will resign. Uphold it and the right will be enraged. Either way, the party tears itself further apart.

The least worst outcome for Sunak is for the bill to survive the Commons unscathed and then be defeated heavily in the Lords. He could then abandon it and the issue could become a dividing line at the next general election.

Watch: Anoosh is joined by Freddie and Rachel on the New Statesman podcast to discuss who really is in control of the Tories right now.

The Tory centrists, I suspect, reached a similar view. Why undermine a leader who is (from their perspective) probably as good as it gets, to scupper a bill that is not going to be implemented this side of an election? Or, indeed (they can read the polls), the other side? Why upset constituency party activists? And why take the blame for killing a bill that will fall without their intervention? The One Nation Group does have a red line (membership of and adherence to the ECHR) and the bill just about stays on the correct side. This far and no further is the message. Some of them mean it.

At a tactical level, their acquiescence made sense. But there is a clear pattern. The Tory centrists are quicker to compromise and more reluctant to make a fuss than their counterparts on the right. They believe that power and influence can be exercised quietly from the inside (centrists tend to be more promotable to ministerial office than right-wingers). But too often in recent years, rabble-rousing and a refusal to compromise has trumped a grasp of complexity and reasonableness.

This clash of political cultures was apparent again this week. The right rejected arguments of practicality and appeals to party unity; the Tory centrists empathised with a prime minister struggling to hold a fissiparous party together. They concluded that the issue – a bill which will probably never be enacted – is not one for which it is worth going to war. But it is an example of the Conservative mainstream coming to terms with dangerous nonsense, while still not satisfying its colleagues on the right. It is a familiar process that drags the Tories further and further to the extremes.

[See also: The only war is culture war]

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