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7 December 2023

Conservative MPs have given up on the next election

The Tory Party’s open warfare over the Rwanda plan shows Rishi Sunak’s waning authority.

By Freddie Hayward

The government bet the house on solving immigration and is poised to lose. In the words of Suella Braverman in the Commons yesterday (6 December), her colleagues faced “electoral oblivion” if the scheme to send asylum seekers to Rwanda fails. She might be wrong about the prescription but she’s right about the disease. But they did not heed her warning. Five hours later, the immigration minister Robert Jenrick resigned in protest that the Rwanda bill – which declares the central African country to be a “safe country” in order to address the Supreme Court’s concerns – does not go far enough (he wasn’t very specific). It is the latest sign that a death drive has gripped the Conservative Party.

Jenrick’s decision to abandon ship has prompted murmurings that a leadership challenge is afoot. This has forever been the case in the Conservative Party. The sun has not risen in the east and set in the west in the past two years without a Conservative MP contemplating a leadership challenge. Nonetheless, Jenrick’s departure from government destabilises Rishi Sunak and shows, if you needed to be reminded, that many Tory MPs have given up winning the next general election and are focused on securing a top spot in whatever follows. It speaks to Sunak’s waning authority, even if it is premature to think he will be toppled this side of an election.

Beneath the political manoeuvrings, the strategy remains the same: launch some flights filled with migrants before the next election and claim the Tories are the only party with a plan to stop the boats. Yet time is ticking for the Conservatives, and it seems improbable that the new legislation can vault the obstacles that lie ahead in time for the next election, not least because of possible legal challenges. On top of that, the Rwandan government – which the Supreme Court found to have an incompetent judicial system, unable to abide by its international obligations – has chastised the British government for getting perilously close to breaking international law.

This was the argument with which Sunak dismissed Jenrick’s decision to resign as removed from reality: the government cannot fully override its international human rights obligations because then the Rwandan government would not agree to a deal in the first place. This back and forth, in full view of the electorate, is emblematic of the core problem: the Conservatives cannot effectively communicate with voters if it is engaged in an endless civil war – flights or no flights.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

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[See also: Labour must have the courage to reduce immigration]

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