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Rishi Sunak may have won in the Commons on Tuesday night, but victory came at no little cost to his authority and followed allegations of the government deploying “dark arts” tactics.
The crunch vote followed a day of high drama in Westminster that laid bare the scale of division in the Conservative party and served as a portent of the trouble looming for Downing Street in the new year.
Sunak’s eleventh-hour efforts to shore up the vote had started early on Tuesday. He hosted about 15 MPs on the Tory right for a dawn breakfast of bacon sandwiches, fruit and pastries, during which he pledged his willingness to “tighten” the migration legislation in exchange for their support.
Inviting each MP in the room to briefly air their concerns, the prime minister urged them to concentrate on the principle of the legislation, stop “blue on blue” attacks, and follow the example of the One Nation caucus that had agreed to row in behind the bill, according to people present.
His intervention appeared to convince some rightwingers to fall in behind the bill, at least at this early stage of its progress through the Commons.
But Sunak’s appeal seemed to fuel the anger of other MPs. One rightwing MP questioned whether Sunak had made a genuine commitment to amending the bill and accused the prime minister of flip-flopping.
Last week Sunak insisted the bill went as far as he was prepared to go on preventing legal challenges by asylum seekers being sent to Rwanda. The MP said of the prime minister: “Do I trust the one who spoke to me last week, or the one who spoke to me today?”
As the morning drew on, some of the most hardline MPs on the Tory right began to predict it was unlikely their bloc would inflict a defeat on the government.
Ministers were still nervous about the 7:15pm vote. Chief whip Simon Hart held a last-minute meeting with leaders of the self-described “five families” of right-wing factions, including Danny Kruger of the New Conservatives and Mark Francois of the European Research Group.
Rightwingers alleged the whips office deployed “dark arts” tactics to get MPs into line, including alleged threats of “consequences” if MPs refused to vote with the government. Tory insiders close to the whips denied any MP had been threatened with losing the party whip if they rebelled.
Sunak’s concern that the numbers could be close was symbolised by net zero minister Graham Stuart’s return from COP28 in Dubai for the vote, leaving only peer Lord Richard Benyon representing the UK government at the global summit.
The government said Stuart would return to the climate summit after the vote, a 7,000 mile round-trip.
As the debate on the bill got under way in the Commons chamber, home secretary James Cleverly argued it pushed the envelope of international law, but faced flak from former immigration minister Robert Jenrick who accused the government of “sophistry”.
Sunak’s offer to his party’s right flank to strengthen the bill also sparked a backlash among centrist Conservatives. “I’m hacked off,” said one member of the One Nation caucus. “If [Sunak] moves there’ll be big trouble,” the MP warned, adding the bill was already “right at the line” of what was acceptable to moderate Conservatives.
Other centrists focused their ire on colleagues on the party’s right flank. Sir Gary Streeter, a veteran Tory MP who served as a whip in the dying days of John Major’s government, said that if colleagues did not fall into line the party was heading for “a 1997-scale defeat”. Referring to potential rebels, he added: “This is not funny. You are driving us towards the abyss.”
Although Sunak avoided defeat by 313 votes to 269, government insiders are alive to the threat they face from the rightwing of British politics — both inside and outside the party.
Former Ukip leader Nigel Farage branded the Rwanda bill “pathetic” and told GB News the next election will be “utterly and completely dominated by the immigration issue”. Nor has it escaped the notice of Tory MPs that the right-wing Reform UK party, which advocates “net zero immigration”, has climbed to an average of 9 per cent in the polls.
In an appeal to the party’s MPs to “pull themselves together” and end the infighting, former Tory leader Lord William Hague cautioned it would be a “very serious situation” if the Conservatives crashed into opposition at the general election. He told Times Radio that “there is no guarantee of coming back”.
Damian Green, chair of the One Nation caucus, also conceded it was “damaging if you have division in the party”.
The turmoil engulfing the party was seized upon by Labour. Sir Keir Starmer used a speech in Milton Keynes to accuse the Tories of “fighting like rats in a sack”, as he pledged to tackle immigration without the “psychodrama”.
Ahead of the vote, another Labour MP said even a government win “would leave Sunak in a difficult position for weeks” before the next reading of the bill.
“In some ways that would be the best outcome for us.”