Tory officials quit over immigration row

PM Rishi Sunak’s Rwanda deportation plan looks set for a defining vote on Wednesday night

UK prime minister Rishi Sunak in happier times with Lee Anderson, who has quit as Tory deputy chairman: With Brendan Clarke-Smith, Mr Anderson wants clauses to disapply large parts of international and British human rights law. Photograph: Jacob King/PA

Three MPs who were top government officials have quit over prime minister Rishi Sunak’s setpiece Rwanda deportation plan, as the Conservative Party’s internal wrangling over immigration looks set to reach a climax on Wednesday night.

Lee Anderson and Brendan Clarke-Smith both resigned as deputy chairmen of the party on Tuesday after being told by Downing Street their positions would be untenable if they backed a series of rebel amendments to Mr Sunak’s plan.

Both men were subsequently among a group of about 58 Tory rebels who voted in the House of Commons on Tuesday to try to toughen up Mr Sunak’s Safety of Rwanda Bill, which aims to enable the deportation to Africa of asylum seekers who arrive illegally.

Jane Stevenson, an aide to business secretary Kemi Badenoch, also quit after backing an amendment.

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Mr Anderson, an outspoken member of the party’s right wing and a GB News presenter, and Mr Clarke-Smith both hold seats in the so-called Red Wall of traditionally working-class constituencies in the north of England, where immigration is a top issue for voters.

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In a joint statement, they said they regretted having to step down to vote for amendments that are not backed by the government. But they promised that their support for Mr Sunak’s government remains “as strong as ever”.

They are among right-wing rebels who want clauses added to prevent individual asylum seekers from challenging their deportation, as well as clauses to disapply large parts of international and British human rights law.

Mr Sunak says he will not support Britain breaking international law. His room for manoeuvre is limited by the fact that a separate band of MPs on the other, more moderate wing of the party have threatened to rebel if he bows to the right-wingers.

The stage is now set for Mr Sunak to call the bluff of the right-wingers in a crunch vote on Wednesday night. If, as expected, the Bill gets through a further series of amendment votes in the afternoon, it will move immediately to its third reading and a vote on the entire Bill that night. If it is amended, the vote will be delayed a few days.

Ultimately, the right-wing rebels will have a decision to make. With their amendments defeated, will enough of them hold their noses and vote through the legislation in its entirety? If they don’t, the Bill falls at the third reading and the Tory party’s setpiece immigration plan collapses completely.

That would be a disaster for the party in an election year. It could also presage a heave against Mr Sunak.

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The rebel group includes prominent names such as Suella Braverman, the sacked former home secretary, and Liz Truss, the former prime minister.

It would take about 29, or roughly half, of the Tory rebel group to vote against the Bill at third reading to defeat and humiliate Mr Sunak. Only about a dozen have confirmed they will so far.

A government Bill hasn’t been defeated at this stage since 1977. Late on Tuesday evening, Mr Sunak’s allies believed he had the numbers and the rebels did not. We should find out who is right at about 7.30pm on Wednesday.

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Mark Paul

Mark Paul

Mark Paul is London Correspondent for The Irish Times