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Rishi Sunak faces trouble at every turn over Rwanda Bill

Britain’s prime minister is in a tricky spot, with a vote due in the House of Commons on Tuesday

It is unclear whether Rishi Sunak, a fitness enthusiast, likes hiking. As a resident of North Yorkshire amid its uplands and moors, it is reasonable to assume he might. If so he may be familiar with the term “cragfast” – where you are stuck in a precarious position with trouble every way you turn. Go up or down, left or right – to be cragfast is to be in mortal danger.

The prime minister appears close to cragfast on the precipice of his Rwanda immigration legislation, which faces the possibility of a Tory rebellion from both flanks. It is, at the time of writing, still up for a vote in the House of Commons on Tuesday unless Sunak pulls it first to avoid the humiliation – or worse – that defeat in the Commons would bring.

The hardline right of the Tory party believes the legislation isn’t tough enough, and wants it stiffened to bar illegal immigrants from taking legal challenges to their deportation to Rwanda. Sunak has legal advice to say this would break international law. Meanwhile, the moderate One Nation party flank is fearful that the legislation is already on the wrong side of international law and would prefer it watered down.

Sunak said last week the chances of successful legal challenges were “vanishingly” small. That description could also be applied to the landing zone of potential compromise between the three Tory schools of thought here.


Sunak’s first option is to pull the Bill altogether to avoid the risk of it being voted down on Tuesday – no UK government has lost a vote since 1986 on legislation at this early stage, just its second reading in the Commons. This would be a last gasp for Sunak to buy himself time but would leave him extraordinarily, and possibly fatally, weakened as a leader in the eyes of his febrile party.

His next option is to let it go to its second reading and then on to a vote in the Commons at about 7pm on Tuesday. If he wins and it scrapes through Sunak buys himself time until January when the row will flare up again at the third reading, when rebels can table amendments. That ding is the sound of a can being kicked down the road. But at least Sunak would be able to enjoy his turkey with quinoa stuffing over Christmas as he plotted his next move.

Should Sunak let it go to a vote and lose that would be the greatest humiliation of all and could even lead to him being ousted or calling for an early general election.

Yet neither would it be risk free for his tormentors on the Tory right. If the Bill falls after a vote on Tuesday that would be the end of it, with no plan for bringing it back. How would right-wing Tories explain to their constituents that their intransigence had cost the party any chance of addressing one of their top political priorities – immigration? Many would also lose their seats in the ensuing election.

It all boils down to who has the numbers. If, as expected, the One Nation caucus holds its nose and lets the Bill pass second stage, the pressure builds on the Tory right, who will know they alone must find the numbers should they make a stand.

For a hiker stuck on a precipice there are only three ways to escape being cragfast. Pull yourself together and plot a sensible way down; dial 999 and ask for outside assistance (hello, is that Labour?); or succumb to your fate, fall and come crashing down the cliff.

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