Politics

PM might win this Rwanda battle, but has he already lost the war?

Rishi Sunak is a prime minister who has always found it easy to build consensus on the world stage.

But when it comes to his own backyard, this premiership tells a very different story.

PM’s own deputy chair rebels on Rwanda – live updates

With voters, he is struggling to build any sort of coalition, still bumping along 18 or so points behind Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour after 15 months in office, while this week he finds himself battling 60 of his own MPs convinced his flagship Rwanda plan won’t work.

And to hammer home the knock-on effect of that failure to deliver on the small boats promise, new polling by YouGov points to a Tory wipeout worse than in the Blair landslide of 1997, with Mr Sunak’s Conservatives predicated to win just 169 seats, while Labour would win 395, giving Sir Keir a majority of 120 seats.

The message from the Tory right is clear: sort out illegal migration or face electoral oblivion.

To that end, rebel MPs are pressing the prime minister to toughen up his Rwanda bill.

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Calls to ‘strengthen’ Rwanda bill

For now, Number 10 seem to be standing its ground – after all, amendments which the right argues strengthen the bill could provoke a rebellion on the One Nation centrist wing of the party, or even the Rwandan government, which has warned London the bill must stay within international law.

There is going to be a lot of rows, noise, and tension over the coming 48 hours, but even on the rebel side, there is a sense MPs won’t torpedo the entire bill should the government refuse to accept the amendments laid by former immigration minister Robert Jenrick, which aim to tighten the bill around getting planes off the ground in the face of injunctions from the European Court of Human Rights, or asylum seekers being allowed to make individual claims.

As one senior rebel put it to me the other day, it’s one thing to abstain, or vote for rebel amendments, and another to collapse the whole bill entirely.

So far, only Suella Braverman has come out to say she will vote down the bill if it’s not amended.

Read more:
The by-election battles of Sunak’s premiership
Mysterious election poll designed to cause trouble

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The bigger problem for the PM is the rot. Even if he manages to pass the bill, the can is only kicked down the road.

His government will face individual court battles and perhaps a tussle with the court in Strasbourg. He might win in the Commons this week, but if the policy doesn’t work, he’ll face the wrath not just of many of his MPs but many former Conservative voters too.

Last December, after much drama, Mr Sunak headed off a Conservative revolt over his flagship bill, when – despite all the noise – the government won the vote with a majority of 44, with 37 MPs either abstaining or absent and not one voting against.

But even if the prime minister can carry his plan through the Commons this week, the question on all the minds of MPs – amplified by the polling out today – is whether it can even dent Labour’s lead.

As a senior minister lamented to me last December during those Tory rows over Rwanda: “This is the week our hopes of 1992 turned into 1997.”

In other words, even if Mr Sunak can win the battles with his rebel MPs, he has lost the war with a party irreconcilably divided and a public that’s tuned out.

His best hope is that steady progress – on the boats, the economy, NHS waiting lists – can slowly turn the tide.

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