'Rishi on the rack': what happens if PM loses Rwanda vote?

Sunak faces his biggest premiership challenge to date in effort to stop the boats

Photo montage of Rishi Sunak, James Cleverly, Robert Jenrick, Suella Braverman and Paul Kagame
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images)

Rishi Sunak is "battling to keep his grip on power" this week as he is grilled at the Covid inquiry and his MPs decide whether to block or back his controversial Rwanda bill.

"Rishi on the rack" was Metro's front-page headline ahead of the PM being questioned on his flagship "Eat Out to Help Out" scheme and failure to provide the public inquiry with pandemic-era WhatsApp messages from his time as chancellor.

He is also facing an existential challenge to his premiership, as five factions from the Conservative right attended a crunch meeting at lunchtime today. A so-called "star-chamber" of legal experts have ruled that Sunak's Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill "provides a partial and incomplete solution" but does not go "far enough to deliver the policy as intended".

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What the papers said

The five right-wing groups, made up of the ERG, New Conservatives, Common Sense Group, Conservative Growth Group and the Northern Research Group, were planning to decide which course of action to take over the government's emergency legislation, chaired by veteran Brexiteer Bill Cash.

The group may choose to back the bill at the second reading tomorrow with a view to amending it later, abstain from voting on the bill, or vote the legislation down altogether. But while Conservative whips spent the weekend "trying to sweet talk" MPs into backing the bill, "it's not clear how many were listening", said Politico.

Many on the right – former immigration minister Robert Jenrick and former home secretary Suella Braverman among them – believe the legislation does not go far enough. Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, Cash said the wording of the bill was not "sufficiently watertight" to prevent protracted legal challenges from migrants looking to remain in the UK.

The more moderate One Nation Conservatives have also been meeting, with their verdict expected this evening. Conservative whips believe the One Nation Tories are "less likely to take the nuclear option of voting down a bill at second reading", said Politico. 

But with just 29 MPs needed to vote against the legislation to kill it off, the looming threat from the Conservative right will be causing Downing Street "deep concern", said the i news site. If the bill is blocked on Tuesday, it would be the first time this has happened since 1986, and would "imperil the PM's leadership and lead to calls for a general election", it added.

Many on the government benches are living in a "scheming dream world", said The Sun's political editor Harry Cole. But the prime minister' detractors must ask themselves: "Who is their alternative leader today?" Boris Johnson is "not coming back" and Kemi Badenoch is unlikely to want the job, as it would only be a matter of weeks before the pressure to call an election would become "unbearable".

"Only one alternative leader can benefit from yet another unending bout of Tory letter-writing," continued Cole, "and that is Sir Keir Starmer."

What next?

The most likely outcome is that the vast majority of Sunak's MPs – including critics of the bill – vote for it to move to the next stage. That's because "defeating it at this stage would kill the bill – and, by extension, the Rwanda policy", said The Times. Critics of the bill will instead want to table amendments to strengthen it at committee stage.

This is expected to begin when MPs return from the Christmas break, "meaning Sunak's real challenge will come in January", added the paper.

If Sunak were to lose the vote, however, it would be a "colossal assault" on the prime minister's authority, said the BBC's political editor Chris Mason on Radio 4's "Today" programme.

Sunak has said the vote should not be treated as a confidence vote on his premiership. But losing would certainly "fast forward" conversations around how long he can hold on – and how long the Conservative Party can go on without calling a general election.

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