Rishi Sunak’s toughest week began on Monday with several hours of testimony to the UK’s Covid inquiry, where he defended his role as chancellor of the exchequer in the handling of the crisis. While he was parrying questions, members of his parliamentary party were arguing over whether to support the amended version of what has become his administration’s signature legislation, the highly controversial Rwanda bill, which aims to fulfil Sunak’s pledge to “stop the boats” by transporting asylum seekers to the central African state
Following the UK supreme court’s rejection of the initial bill, a reworded version will go on Tuesday before the House of Commons, where it faces the real prospect of defeat. The new wording permits ministers to ignore injunctions by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, a potential breach of the UK’s international treaty obligations which alarms some Conservatives in the moderate One Nation group.
Others on the right of the party argue the legislation should bypass the court completely. Sunak’s immigration minister and former ally Robert Jenrick resigned last week in protest against the new wording and has accused the prime minister of breaking his promise to do “whatever it takes” to stop people crossing the Channel to claim asylum. He, along with other significant figures such as former home secretary Suella Braverman, is almost certain to vote against the bill, while the chair of the influential European Research Group has said it should be pulled.
The Rwanda policy, which has been widely criticised on human rights grounds, was supposed to protect Conservative seats in “red wall” constituencies and to see off the threat to the party’s right flank from Reform UK. In practice it has become a running political sore which publicly exposes apparently irreconcilable divisions in the party, along with an increasingly manic jostling for position in anticipation of an electoral defeat next year. It is a sign of the depth of the malaise afflicting the Conservatives that the Tory press gave widespread coverage over the weekend to attempts to reinstate Boris Johnson as leader, even though Johnson is no longer an MP.
The UK government’s own advisers estimate the Rwanda scheme has at best a 50 per chance of being implemented before the next general election. Given its travails in the Commons, the prospect of considerable resistance in the House of Lords and the certainty of further legal challenges, that looks optimistic. The Rwandan government itself has expressed reservations about whether the bill is in breach of international law. In fact it may be the bill itself that ends up precipitating that election sooner than Sunak had planned. Tuesday’s vote is not a confidence motion, but it contributes to the general sense of a government unravelling.