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The embattled Tory leader is scrambling to gather enough support ahead for Tuesday’s crunch vote on the deportation plan, as rebel MPs in warring wings of the party plot behind his back.
Mr Sunak was forced to reject the “Dr Death” label – and backed his former boss Boris Johnson’s handling of the pandemic – as he wrestled with an untimely grilling at the Covid inquiry in west London on Monday.
Back at Westminster, the hardliner Brexiteers who brought down Theresa May were back causing trouble for Mr Sunak – as Mark Francois and his allies in the European Research Group (ERG) raised the stakes by demanding that No 10 “pull the bill” now.
Desperate Tory ministers and whips have been trying to persuade backbenchers to vote for the bill – but the right appeared to harden their position after the ERG’s “star chamber” said it did not “go far enough” to get flights off to Rwanda.
One senior Tory MP told The Independent: “It’s a complete mess – [Rwanda] was a stupid Boris Johnson gimmick which has come back to bite us.”
Tuesday’s showdown vote in parliament comes as:
- Rishi Sunak defended Eat Out to Help Out as just a “micro-policy” and said it was unfair to call the Treasury “pro-death squad”
- The PM was handed a boost as ‘One Nation’ group of Tory moderates recommended voting for the bill
- The Tory leader is holding a Tuesday breakfast meeting with 20 right-wingers in a bid to win their backing
- Sunak was warned he could still lose the crucial Rwanda bill vote “by accident” if enough MPs abstain
- The Home Office’s top civil servant admitted there was no evidence the Rwanda plan had a deterrent effect on small boat crossings
Mr Sunak issued a strong defence of his Eat Out to Help Out scheme at the inquiry – insisting that scientists did get an opportunity to raise their concerns. The former chancellor also said it was unfair to call the Treasury “pro-death squad”, as Mr Johnson had described his old department.
The PM also said he had “consistently” warned Mr Johnson about lockdowns and the “economic scarring”. But he also defended his predecessor’s handling of the Covid crisis – saying there was an “iterative” decision-making process that was “not necessarily a bad thing”.
The Tory leader’s calm performance came amid turmoil at Westminster, as hardliners in the ERG delivered a much more scathing verdict on the Rwanda bill than planned.
Mr Francois said there was a “consensus” among hardline right-wingers – after a meeting with allies from the New Conservatives and the Common Sense Group – that Mr Sunak should “pull the bill” immediately.
The senior rebel – among those pushing for the government to opt of the European Convention on Human Rights to stop individual appeals – said No 10 should “come up with a revised version that works better than this one which has so many holes in it”.
While many right-wingers had been expected to vote with the government on Tuesday, and “hold their fire” until January, David Jones, the ERG deputy chair, warned that the bill was “not easily amendable” at the committee stage.
While No 10 is still confident of surviving the first hurdle vote on Tuesday, Mr Sunak could still lose the crucial Commons vote “by accident” if enough rebels abstain, according to some nervous Tories.
Mr Sunak only needs a rebellion of 28 Conservatives to see his majority destroyed as Labour and other parties will vote against it. But if 56 Tory MPs abstain, that would also see the government majority vanish.
One senior Tory right-winger told The Independent: “It could happen by accident [because of abstentions]. People will make up their own minds.” Another MP, loyal to Mr Sunak, said: “The maths could get tricky if people think they can abstain with no consequence.”
Right-wing MP Simon Clarke, a key figure in the Conservative Growth Group of Liz Truss allies, suggested that he could vote against the bill at some stage. “There is no point frankly in our relitigating this issue unless it does work.”
Veteran Brexiteer Sir Michael Fabricant, an ERG member, said he would be voting for the bill on Tuesday – one sign it is still likely to go through at the first hurdle. “Amendments can then be made later in the usual way.”
One senior Tory right-winger said some would abstain, some would vote against – but most of the unhappy hardliners would reluctantly choose back it on Tuesday. “I’m not sure it’s sensible to vote it down now.”
The former minister warned Mr Sunak that he must not be “deaf” to rebel amendments, or face a crushing defeat on the bill at the third reading stage early in 2024 – one that could threaten his premiership.
Another right-winger said they would back the bill because they were worried about plunging the party into crisis. “It would be madness to vote it down – really bad for the PM’s authority,” they told The Independent. “These blue-on-blue attacks aren’t doing us any good.”
Mr Sunak will meet some of the Tory rebels over breakfast on Tuesday morning. A group of around 20 MPs in the New Conservatives group, led by Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates, have been invited.
Senior Tory MP Sir Charles Walker, former chair of the 1922 committee, said Mr Sunak should get ready to call an immediate election if the Tories “self-destruct” over Rwanda and his bill is defeated at any stage.
The government took the highly-unusual step of sharing a summary of its legal advice on Monday in a bid to persuade wavering Tories that it is watertight.
The lawyers said the Rwanda bill offers only an “exceptionally narrow route” for migrants to challenge deportation. But they also insisted that there had to be some room for individual appeals to stay within international law.
Cabinet minister Grant Shapps also pointed to separate Home Office modelling which suggests 99.5 per cent of individual legal challenges will fail.
But critics dismissed the assessment, based on a model from March, as “outdated”. A senior Tory source said: “Even this old, optimistic model says it could take more than two months to remove a migrant. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious.”
Damaging news came from Sir Matthew Rycroft, the Home Office’s permanent secretary, who admitted to a select committee of MPs that “we don’t have evidence” the Rwanda flights would have a deterrent effect on small boat crossings.
Some Tories are in despair at how Mr Sunak has forced himself into a corner over the Rwanda plan. “There’s no good outcome that will impress voters,” said one MP. “They will say, ‘You had a majority and five years and why the hell didn’t you fix this?’”
“It would be crazy to kill a bill when there’s nothing better coming along,” the senior backbencher added. “But we can’t say to the public, ‘We chucked the kitchen sink at it’ when Suella Braverman and Robert Jenrick said we didn’t do everything.”