Nostalgia stalked Westminster yesterday: a nostalgia for Brexit. Why do I say this? Because both the media and Tory MPs seemed to be pretending that the vote on the second reading of the Rwanda bill was a reincarnation of the Brexit wars. Throughout the afternoon, Tory MPs burrowed into various committee rooms around Westminster Palace to fashion a response. Mark Francois – a stout Tory MP who, after a stint as a coalition whip and minister, came into his own as a parliamentary Brexit pugilist – grandiosely proclaimed outside Portcullis House that he and his colleagues on the party’s right would abstain.
Over in the chamber, the shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, pen in hand, hair slicked back like an Australian Open tennis player, chastised the parliamentarians sat opposite for slashing away at windmills. But Labour was not the main show. That was Robert Jenrick, the erstwhile immigration minister, who rose to declare that here he stood and he could do no other.
Except… abstain on the bill in order to improve it at the committee stage. Priti Patel, who Jenrick doffed his hat to multiple times, was sitting a row back as a reminder of all those migration ministers who had failed before Jenrick. In truth, it seemed that his speech was delivered with one eye on the leadership contest that will follow electoral defeat. He was parading in front of his fellow Tory MPs.
Despite his words – and his abstention – the bill passed with a majority of 44. For all the rigamarole – the breakfast meeting between Sunak and mutinous MPs, the photo ops, the hills climbed and marched down again – the result was as predicted. The government is still wrestling with a despair-ridden parliamentary party that it can barely control. It is still running out of time to change course before the election. And its message is still incoherent.
Any success the Tories scrape from the Rwanda scheme will be blotted out in thick ink in the papers by vindictive, anonymous quotes speculating about the leadership. It feels like parliamentary Conservatives are trying to start a car while half of their MPs are deflating the tyres and the other half refuse to turn the ignition. The party’s disunity precludes any success. Sunak held off a seismic defeat in the Commons but opposition to the bill will continue into the new year.
What rang true in Jenrick’s speech was this: illegal migration as an issue is not going away. If we assume that the Rwanda scheme fails and that Labour wins the election, then this will become a problem for Starmer – a leader who pumped up expectations in his speech yesterday that he will reduce immigration. He claims to want to chart a new approach, but is he destined to follow the path of raising voters’ hopes only to be constrained by what that means in reality?
This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.