As he desperately tries to convince his party’s restive right wing to back his new Rwanda immigration legislation, Rishi Sunak has entered a tunnel of negotiations. The question is whether he will still be Britain’s prime minister when he emerges from it over the next week or so.
Sunak is facing a moment of true political peril. This is easily the closest that he has come to losing his job since he took over from Liz Truss last year. If Sunak is toppled, an election could soon follow.
As ever the Tories are in convulsions over immigration. Sunak has proposed legislation, the Safety of Rwanda Bill, to give effect to a reworked agreement with the African country for it to accept all asylum seekers that arrive in Britain illegally. In effect, if would-be refugees cross the English Channel on small boats from France they would be deported to Rwanda.
The nub of the issue exercising the Tory right is Sunak’s refusal to include a provision to unilaterally override international human rights law such as the European Convention on Human Rights, which is often used to challenge deportations. Sunak has instead substantially narrowed the grounds for appeal. He believes that walking away completely from international law would irreparably damage the UK’s standing. Rwanda has also indicated it would end the deal.
Sunak said his plan was the ‘toughest legislation that has ever’ been proposed on immigration and the difference between him and his critics ‘is only an inch’. But give them an inch, and they could take a mile.
Hardliners on the Tory right are threatening to not back the Bill unless it overrides international law. Former immigration minister Robert Jenrick, a convert to the hardline position, resigned on Wednesday night, saying Sunak’s Bill was not tough enough. Suella Braverman, the sacked former home secretary, has also rejected Sunak’s plan.
The prime minister came out fighting on Thursday. In a hastily-arranged press conference in Downing Street he said his plan was the “toughest legislation that has ever” been proposed on immigration, and the difference between him and his critics “is only an inch”. But give them an inch, and they could take a mile. The Bill is up for a vote in the Commons on Tuesday. If enough of the Tory right doesn’t back it, Sunak could lose. If he toughens it too much, moderate Tories could rebel and defeat it.
If Sunak cannot pass legislation on immigration, his top electoral priority, then his ability to govern Britain can be legitimately called into question.
Tuesday’s vote is not a confidence vote, which would see Tory rebels thrown out if they didn’t back Sunak. That suggests he knows he is struggling to get the numbers.
If Sunak loses on Tuesday a proper confidence vote would surely soon follow. Then his future would be out of his hands.
If the Tory right backs down and Sunak wins he would live to fight another day but it isn’t yet clear for how long. The Tories’ immigration tic could flare up again down the line. It could be a blue Christmas for Sunak.