New Times,
New Thinking.

Rishi Sunak can afford to face down Tory rebels over the Rwanda bill

The Prime Minister knows that few of his critics genuinely want another leadership contest before the next election.

By Rachel Cunliffe

It’s always fun when a new poll comes out and stirs Westminster up into frenzy. And YouGov’s latest survey, using the multi-level regression and post-stratification (MRP) method that accurately predicted the 2017 and 2019 general election results, has had just that effect. 

“Tories on course for worst electoral defeat since 1997,” declared the Telegraph’s frontpage which helpfully pointed out that the Conservatives would lose every “Red Wall” seat won in 2019 and that eleven cabinet ministers, including Jeremy Hunt, would be ousted. 

That the Tories are not doing too well is hardly news. What was eye-catching, however, was the Telegraph’s accompanying narrative that this wipeout would primarily be due to Nigel Farage’s right-wing party Reform UK. “Support for it would be the decisive factor in 96 Tory losses – the difference between a Labour majority and a hung parliament,” the Telegraph said.

But it did not take long for cracks in this analysis to be pointed out. As my colleague Ben Walker quickly noted, “the idea that Reform supporters alone can deny Labour a majority is delusional”, since all the available polling shows that most Reform voters are highly unlikely to switch to the Tories, whatever Rishi Sunak tries. Veering further to the right to chase Reform voters is not a viable strategy for the Conservatives. YouGov itself published a short note on its poll countering the Telegraph’s analysis of its data, concluding that “Were Reform UK not to contest the election, it is extremely unlikely that all, or even a majority, of their voters would transfer to the Conservatives.” It’s rare that a polling company has to debunk the analysis of its partner publication. 

And there are other reasons not to treat the MRP poll as gospel (it doesn’t take into account tactical voting, for example – if just a third of Labour, Lib Dem and Green supporters voted tactically for the strongest anti-Tory party, the Conservatives would be another hundred seats down). 

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But the poll does tell us something interesting: the Tory right are worried. This week, Sunak faces one of his greatest challenges as Prime Minister as the contentious Rwanda bill returns to the Commons and amendments are tabled. Conservative rebels have suggested that up to 70 MPs could abstain or vote against the government if Sunak fails to toughen the legislation, potentially enough to  torpedo it. 

Back in December, Sunak was under similar pressure and called the right’s bluff: no Tory MPs voted against the bill and only 29 rebelled by abstaining. (The other abstentions were paired.) Those numbers, while still embarrassing for a Prime Minister trying to pass his flagship legislation, have dented the confidence of right-wing Tories. Some consoled themselves with the hope that their amendments would be taken seriously but with No 10 poised to reject them, they are getting agitated. 

That agitation is showing in various ways. Lee Anderson, the deputy Conservative chair and GB News presenter, is said to be “ready to support the amendments”. This has sparked much debate about whether he would lose his job if he did so (his is technically a party role, not a government one), but regardless, his opposition would be an embarrassment to Sunak. Rumours of his potential rebellion are meant as a threat (and not a particularly subtle one). 

It is also notable that Kemi Badenoch, who has so far avoided publicly challenging Sunak over Rwanda, is reported by the Times to have urged the PM to toughen the legislation. (Badenoch, despite her loyalty to Sunak, has her hopes set on the leadership and knows she will need the right of her party to succeed.)

And so we come back to the YouGov poll, conveniently published (as ConservativeHome’s Paul Goodman has noted) just as the Rwanda bill returns. Also intensifying the pressure on Sunak is Lord Frost, warning in Telegraph that the numbers show “If we don’t act, there will soon only be smoking rubble left”. By “act”, Frost makes clear he means tougher action on immigration(legal and illegal), which is “why this week’s vote on Rwanda is so important”. 

Also making the case that the Rwanda legislation must be toughened up to prevent Reform splitting the right vote was Liz Truss ally Simon Clarke on the BBC’s Politics Live. Neutralising Reform by amending the Rwanda bill, Clarke argues, is the key to denying Labour a landslide victory. 

Sunak might well see it differently – not least because the seemingly easy solution of winning back Reform voters isn’t supported by the data. He will be painfully aware that he risks rebellions from One Nation MPs if he moves too far to the right (One Nation chair Damian Green told my colleague Anoosh Chakelian that the Prime Minister had promised he would go “no further on Rwanda”). 

He will also know that the Tory rebels are unlikely to support another leadership challenge when the country is already weary of endless Tory infighting and none of the frontrunners wants the job of leading the party to defeat. In a strange way, Sunak’s weakness is the one thing cementing his position.  

You can see why the right sees this moment as now or never for the Rwanda bill. The YouGov poll – or at least as it’s been framed and discussed – doesn’t tell us definitively what will happen at the next election. But it tells us a great deal about the fracturing of the Conservative Party.

[See also: Labour’s biggest threat is an electorate that has given up]

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