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17 January 2024updated 18 Jan 2024 10:30am

Rishi Sunak’s hollow victory

The Rwanda bill has passed but the Tories’ toxic divisions are worse than ever.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Rishi Sunak has got his Rwanda bill through the House of Commons – but his party remains more divided than ever.

After two days of furious debate, threats, promises, resignations, briefings and counter-briefings, the legislation passed by 476 votes to 320, a majority of 44 (with just 11 Tory rebels). A last-minute meeting of around 40 MPs of the right’s “Five Families” in a wood-panelled committee room, featuring familiar faces from the May-era Brexit wars such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Michael Fabricant, failed to solidify into a rebellion capable of bringing down the bill (and potentially the government). Robert Jenrick, who resigned as immigration minister in protest at the bill, even withdrew the amendments he had tabled. 

This nascent right-wing revolt did not have the same force as that which eventually toppled Theresa May for several reasons. For a start, MPs on the Tory right support the Rwanda bill in principle even if it’s not as stringent as they would like. Listening to the speeches in the chamber over the past 48 hours, it was striking how the would-be rebels talked up the importance of the bill they were simultaneously threatening to torpedo. Their options were ultimately to back an imperfect version or to end up with nothing at all. It is no surprise that most chose the former.

From a party perspective, it’s also unsurprising that the rebels’ bark was worse than their bite. Despite the growing dissatisfaction with Sunak, most Tory MPs have little appetite to remove him in advance of an election they’re likely to lose under any leader. They know, too, that anointing a sixth Tory prime minister (since 2010) could make their electoral prospects even worse. No doubt many were hoping that if they threatened letters of no confidence and talked up Reform UK’s polling, the government would blink and offer concessions. No blinking occurred.

For all that, one suspects that not too many champagne corks are popping in Downing Street (and not just because the PM is teetotal). The danger isn’t over: the Rwanda bill has many hurdles to clear – the House of Lords, legal challenges, both domestic and international – before the much-heralded flights can take off, and that’s assuming the government finds a plane and the migrants it wishes to deport

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Even if ministers get their way, the chance of the scheme making any meaningful difference to Channel crossings before the next election is vanishingly slim. Remember, the public doesn’t trust the Conservatives on immigration, and the infighting this week (plus Keir Starmer’s jibes) have only further eroded the government’s authority.

More pressingly for Sunak, 60 Tory MPs chose to rebel over the amendments. That’s almost a fifth of the parliamentary party and more than the number needed to trigger a confidence vote in him (52). Those MPs feel deeply let down, betrayed even, by the government. They are not suddenly going to start playing nice.

Managing the toxic divisions within the Conservative Party – something Sunak has never thrived at – is going to get even harder. And those divisions are already providing ample ammunition for the Labour Party, which merely needs to sit back and point as the Tories tear themselves apart.

The Rwanda bill long ago ceased to be about policy – it became a test of Sunak’s authority. That it cost him so much to win tonight, with the loss of an immigration minister, two deputy Tory chairs, and reams of blue-on-blue soundbites to be deployed by Labour at the election, shows how fragile that authority is. A victory, yes, but a Pyrrhic one.

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