Lee Anderson has resigned as deputy chairman of the Conservative Party after supporting rebel amendments to the government’s Rwanda bill.
It has been a dizzying day of bluff and U-turns as the bill, on which Rishi Sunak has staked his leadership, returned to MPs in the Commons. Anderson, along with fellow deputy chairman Brendan Clarke-Smith (who has also resigned), had endorsed amendments put forward by the veteran Brexiteer Bill Cash to toughen the legislation, sparking fevered speculation as to whether they would keep their jobs.
Technically, their roles are party rather than governments ones, meaning they sit in a grey area for the whips. Losing Anderson – whether by sacking or forcing him to resign – was bound to further stoke the revolt simmering on the right of the party. A frenzied back-and-forth played out in parliament throughout the day. Late in the afternoon, Downing Street was still suggesting that Anderson and Clarke-Smith could vote for the amendments while keeping their jobs.
Yet just as voting was about to begin following a three-hour debate, the Chief Whip Simon Hart clarified that if they rebelled against the government their position would be “untenable”. Jane Stevenson, the parliamentary private secretary to Kemi Badenoch, was sacked for the same offence.
Why did Sunak suddenly change his mind on their job status? There was undoubtedly anger from Conservative MPs that Anderson might evade the normal rules of whipping and keep his job. “It would make Sunak look even weaker than he does now,” one incredulous Tory told me.
And Sunak can’t afford to look weak right now. While the rebels don’t have the numbers to pass their amendments tonight, Labour will be voting against the bill tomorrow. If just 28 Tory MPs join the opposition, the government will be defeated (its working majority is now only 54). At the Rwanda bill’s second reading in December, there were 29 unauthorised Tory abstentions. The venomous debate in the Commons today was essentially three hours of psychodrama and infighting on the Tory benches. Government whips are getting jittery.
But waiting so long to make the position clear to Anderson, only for him to call Sunak’s bluff and quit anyway, brings new risks. The deputy chairman has become yet another sacrifice – after Robert Jenrick and Suella Braverman – on the altar of the Rwanda plan. The right of the party is furious: it feels misled by the government, which has refused to accept any of its amendments and has now ousted one of its most high-profile figures.
Tonight’s votes on amendments to the bill are just a preview of what is to come tomorrow – but Sunak’s vacillation hasn’t helped his position. The number of rebels who supported the right’s amendments was twice the number needed to defeat the bill at its third reading. At least a handful of them are angry enough to risk bringing down Sunak’s government. The question is how big that handful grows overnight.