Rishi Sunak’s election supremo Isaac Levido this week issued a stark warning to Tory MPs, telling them: “Divided parties fail.”
But the Conservative rebellion over the government’s Rwanda asylum bill over the last 48 hours is an ominous sign for the prime minister that the warning is not being heeded.
Tory MPs may have pulled back from voting down the bill in its entirety: the House of Commons approved the legislation at its crucial third reading on Wednesday evening.
But asked about the revolt by 60 Conservative MPs, who defied Sunak by trying to toughen it up, one former cabinet minister pulled an imaginary pistol from his pocket and took aim at his two feet.
Sunak expects the Rwanda bill to eventually reach the statute book after a battering in both the Commons and House of Lords, although its passage into law is taking a heavy toll on his authority.
A small number of Tories believe Sunak is so badly damaged that he should be replaced — presenting the country with its fourth Tory prime minister of this parliament. But this is a minority view. “Bollocks,” said one cabinet minister.
However, that the discussion is taking place at all is a sign of the febrile nature of Conservative politics, where the party’s warring factions barely bother to conceal their dislike of each other.
In the Commons on Wednesday, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer mocked Sunak’s policy to dispatch asylum seekers from the beaches of Kent to east Africa as “a farce not a policy”.
Even Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame, whose government has so far been paid £240mn by the UK to take some of Britain’s asylum seekers, is tiring of the drama. “There are limits to how long this can drag on,” he said in Davos.
The danger for Sunak is that the Rwanda policy is becoming synonymous with a failure to grip illegal migration, rather than evidence of a tough “deterrent” being deployed to stop the small boat crossings over the English Channel.
Polling by Savanta on Wednesday found that 72 per cent of adults thought Sunak’s “stop the boats” plan had gone badly.
Allies of James Cleverly, the home secretary who previously described the Rwanda policy as “batshit”, wonder why the government is putting such a spotlight on a part of its migration strategy that is not working.
Two years after it was conceived, no migrants have been sent to Rwanda and many doubt any will be on a plane to Kigali before an election.
By contrast other policies, such as striking a migrant returns agreement with Albania and working more closely with France to tackle people smuggling gangs, helped to cut Channel crossings last year by one-third.
Tory rebels argue that the Rwanda bill will not succeed in delivering swift removals because of the scope for huge numbers of individual appeals and last minute interventions by judges at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Such is their certainty that the bill will fail that some have put rectifying its “flaws” ahead of the unity that Levido says voters expect as a bare minimum from a governing party.
Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger, co-chairs of the right-wing New Conservatives faction, wrote to fellow rebel MPs to say: “The doomed pursuit of unity as an end in itself will mean nothing if, as we sadly anticipate, this bill fails to deliver on the promises we have made to those who send us here.”
Sunak says he wants migrants on planes to Rwanda by the spring, but illegal migration minister Michael Tomlinson admitted that even after the bill receives royal assent, deportation flights would not begin within “days or weeks”.
Furthermore, Starmer noted that the Home Office had lost contact with 4,250 of 5,000 migrants set to be sent from the UK to Africa, and challenged Sunak four times to say where they were. Downing Street did not deny the claim.
Even once the Home Office identifies asylum seekers to put on flights to Kigali, many could launch individual appeals, claiming they would suffer serious harm.
Sir Jonathan Jones, former permanent secretary at the government legal department, said this week: “I think it’s quite likely that no one will be on a plane before an election.”
In those circumstances, rebel Tory MPs would be able to say: “Told you so”, while Labour would have new evidence to support Starmer’s claim that the whole Rwanda policy is a “gimmick”.
Sunak’s cabinet colleagues claim that some of the rebels — notably supporters of former premiers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss — are motivated by a desire for revenge as much as a hope to toughen UK migration rules.
But one Tory grandee on the right of the party said: “These people can’t think more than one step ahead. Do they really think you can ditch Sunak and spend two months finding a new leader in an election year?”
Even in the unlikely event Tory rebels staged a leadership challenge, they would run into heavy opposition from mainstream MPs, who in recent days have variously described their colleagues as “nutcases” and “people who should be taken away in a van”.
But David Campbell Bannerman, a former Tory MEP and chair of the pro-Johnson Conservative Democratic Organisation, said: “To those that say it’s not possible to change the leader, we’ve got a year. Boris turned things around from an even worse position — 9 per cent — to win the biggest Conservative majority since 1987.”
Sunak’s allies hope that once the Rwanda bill is on the statute book, the party will bury its differences and focus on the election ahead. “This could be a turning point for the party — maybe colleagues will get real,” said one cabinet minister with a wry smile.
But for the prime minister, time is short.