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11 December 2023

Sunak’s problems go much deeper than the Rwanda bill

Conservative infighting risks obscuring any policy successes the Prime Minister enjoys.

By Freddie Hayward

The Prime Minister is under attack from all sides. When Nigel Farage returned from the I’m a Celeb… jungle this week he will have been pleased to find a Conservative Party splintered over Rishi Sunak’s Rwanda bill, which declares the African country a safe place to send refugees. Those factions will decide later today (11 December) how to vote on the legislation when it comes to the House of Commons tomorrow. At the forefront of their minds will be the way support for the right-wing Reform UK party is rising.

But Sunak’s problems go much deeper than this. The Tories’ stubborn polling deficit has led some of their MPs to brief the newspapers that the party’s only chance of survival lies in a return of Boris Johnson, arm-in-arm with Farage. Keir Starmer is hoping to capitalise on the chaos with a speech tomorrow on how Tory disunity has left the country ungoverned. “Is there anybody in the government now who feels a sense of obligation to something other than themselves?” he will say. To top it off, the Prime Minister must endure two days of scrutiny at the Covid inquiry over his handling of the pandemic as chancellor.

Sunak is not alone in facing a parliamentary split over immigration: later today French parliamentarians will vote on Emmanuel Macron’s immigration proposals. They include cutting the number of asylum application appeals from 12 to two, and speeding up deportations, while at the same time providing work permits to undocumented people to deal with labour shortages. The French president’s borrowing of ideas from both sides of the aisle has provoked condemnation from the conservative Republicans and Marie Le Pen’s National Rally.

But for Sunak, the greatest threat remains from inside his own party. The problems with the Rwanda plan continue to stack up: there is a long way between now and this policy saving the Tory party some seats, let alone the election. First, No 10 must get the bill through parliament. Sunak has enlisted David Cameron to talk his MPs off the ledge – a curious decision when you reflect that Cameron’s failure to control the right of his party led to his demise. Today’s agenda for Tory MPs is to decide whether to oppose the bill tomorrow or to express their discontent at the committee stage after Christmas. Even then, the bill could be gummed up by legal challenges. Even if the bill succeeds in getting through, it’s uncertain that the public will even notice planes taking off for Rwanda, so obscured has the scheme become by the Conservative Party’s own bickering.

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

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