So Rishi Sunak lives to fight another day. There had been plenty of speculation that the vote on the latest iteration of the Rwanda plan would end in defeat for the Prime Minister but in the end, it was the dampest of squibs. The ayes easily beat the noes and Sunak gets to take a little time off over Christmas before his battles with the increasingly irreconcilable Conservative right recommence in the new year. There is more than a hint of the flavour of Theresa May’s government to the Sunak premiership now.
In reality, all Sunak has achieved in winning the vote on Tuesday is to kick the can into some slightly overgrown grass. There it will rest for a short while before being kicked back into play. The Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and the Chief Whip won’t have had time to catch their breath. The committee stage of the Bill will take place in the latter half of January. Hardly a timeline that fits the narrative that this is ‘emergency’ legislation and more a tell-tale sign that buying time is the name of the game.
The question on many lips is what happens next? Will any flights to Rwanda take off before the next general election? What does this mean for Sunak himself? Is his position as leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister any more or less secure than it was last week?
Much of this depends on the next steps of the Tory rebels and establishing just how many of them there really are. In all, thirty-seven Conservative MPs didn’t vote on the Bill yesterday but a number of those wouldn’t have been deliberate abstentions. Some would have had other reasons for not having been able to make the vote. Best estimates suggest that the actual number of rebels, those abstaining because they didn’t support the Bill, was twenty-nine.
If those twenty-nine MPs decide to vote against the Bill at a later stage that could be enough to kill it off. Sunak and his team need to pick some of those off before future votes. An even bigger concern will be that some of the MPs who voted for the Bill at this stage could flip to the no lobby when the Bill returns to the House of Commons. Government whips will be buoyed by the relatively recent precedent of the vote on the Windsor Framework. Following much criticism from the same wing of the Conservative Party the final vote was eventually won handsomely and the support given by the Labour Party was not needed.
The motivation of those MPs who are currently opposing the Bill is clear. They don’t think it will work and want to take further steps to ensure that deportations to Rwanda can happen and be unfettered by the courts. However, as I have remarked elsewhere, the rebels, those MPs on the right of the Conservative Party who would like to see a ‘tougher’ approach must surely understand that there isn’t a majority for their desired outcome in the House of Commons. The ‘One Nation’ group of Conservative MPs who number around 100, including some Ministers, has made clear that they would not support any further changes. If they were to withdraw their support the Bill wouldn’t pass even with the support of the twenty-nine abstainers.
If those MPs who are opposed recognise this and vote for ‘something rather than nothing’ then the bill passes. Some however, judging by their words of late seem content to continue with the high wire approach. They calculate that they can either push the rest of their party into supporting their position or defeat the Bill and emerge victorious in a future leadership election. As other, more esteemed, commentators including William Hague, Matthew Parris and my colleague Duncan Flynn have pointed out, this would likely be a very hollow form of victory. Following the next general election a Conservative Party that is riven with internal arguments will not form the next government and in all likelihood be nothing more than a small parliamentary rump.
I suspect that the rebels who aspire to leadership have made this calculation though. They believe that they should lead the Party and if campaigning on ‘wedge’ culture war issues doesn’t carry them to victory then the victory, in their eyes, wouldn’t be worth it.
For Sunak this shouldn’t be an issue that would bring him down in the short-term. To lose a vote on this matter would be a further blow but not an immediate killer blow. He would be winded not knocked out. For his reign as Prime Minister to come to an end before next Autumn he would need to lose either the confidence of his own MPs or that of Parliament. He ought to be safe. The turkeys still aren’t ready to vote for Christmas. But keep an eye on them – they are walking a high wire with no safety net to catch them if they fall.