JASON GROVES: A Christmas truce for a ‘tetchy’ Rishi Sunak, but the Right will be itching for a fight in the New Year
In the end, Rishi Sunak enjoyed a comfortable win on his new Rwanda legislation this week, allowing him to enter Christmas without the humiliation of becoming the first Prime Minister since 1986 to lose a piece of legislation at the first hurdle.
But the fact he had to invest so much political capital in winning what should have been a routine vote tells a story of just how uneasy the Conservative Party remains with itself – and does not augur well for its chances as Britain enters an election year.
Lots of comparisons have been made this week with Theresa May’s doomed struggle to pass her Brexit deal five years ago.
There are certainly some similarities: Self-important ‘star chambers’ have been reconvened, Tory factions have been holding ‘plenary sessions’ behind closed doors to agree tactics, dark threats have been issued.
Even some of the faces are the same, with European Research Group chief Mark Francois, veteran Eurosceptic Sir Bill Cash and former attorney general Sir Geoffrey Cox all appearing on TV screens again.
Rishi Sunak enjoyed a comfortable win on his new Rwanda legislation this week
But there are also big differences, not least that most Tory MPs broadly support the Rwanda plan – and that a general election is looming.
Mrs May lost the first ‘meaningful vote’ on her Brexit deal by a record margin of 230 votes. By contrast, Mr Sunak won the first vote on his Rwanda legislation with a comfortable majority of 44.
But the scale of the eventual win flatters to deceive. Despite a weekend of arm-twisting, allies of the PM still feared on Monday night that the vote could be lost – so much so that the hapless environment minister Graham Stuart was ordered to fly home from the Cop28 climate summit in Dubai, a 7,000-mile round trip which clocked up three tons of carbon emissions.
Mr Sunak even hosted a ‘bacon butty breakfast’ in No 10 for members of the New Conservatives group. The exchange of views was said to have been ‘robust’, with Don Valley MP Nick Fletcher telling the PM it was time for the Government to ‘stop being socialists’.
The meeting turned out to be pivotal. While not all those present were won over by the PM’s vague promise to look at ‘tightening’ the legislation, enough were persuaded he should be given the benefit of the doubt.
When the so-called five families of the Tory Right met that afternoon they agreed to abstain on the legislation and leave the fight for another day.
Some MPs lobbied by the PM in recent days have complained that while he is unfailingly polite, he can come across as condescending and even arrogant.
‘He talks down to people,’ said one. ‘He simply cannot understand why people can’t see that his solution is the right one. When they disagree he gets tetchy and brittle.’
Lots of comparisons have been made this week with Theresa May’s doomed struggle to pass her Brexit deal five years ago
As if to prove the point, the PM appeared to bridle at being described as ‘tetchy’ during an interview with the Spectator last night. ‘I don’t understand that,’ he said.
‘There’s nothing tetchy. But I am passionate. When things are not working the way I want them to work, of course I’m going to be frustrated.’
Criticism of the PM’s personal style is, however, mild compared to that of his chief whip Simon Hart, who has become a hate figure on the Tory Right.
The PM gave Mr Hart a public embrace in the Commons chamber after winning Tuesday night’s vote. But bruised MPs accused him of using every trick in the whips’ book to beat them down.
‘All sorts of madness was going on to get it through,’ said one. ‘Some colleagues had hints they might get a peerage if they voted the right way, others were told they might lose levelling-up money – or even the whip – if they didn’t.
Some of the PM’s harshest critics still believe he could be forced out before the election if the Conservatives continue to languish behind Labour in the polls
‘He has no respect for those of us on the Right, and every piece of legislation he touches comes out wetter as a result. It is getting to the point where people are talking about voting against things just to spite him.’
The claims are denied by government sources. But the resentment against the Government’s allegedly high-handed style could come back to bite them in the New Year.
Some of the PM’s harshest critics still believe he could be forced out before the election if the Conservatives continue to languish behind Labour in the polls. ‘Everything from No 10 this week has been about getting him to Christmas, but all they have done is delay the inevitable,’ said one leading figure.
‘There is a credible plan for how we shunt him out, have a seamless transition to someone fresh and then have an election. The alternative is letting him plough on with a Bill which won’t stop the boats and will leave us facing annihilation at the election.’
Allies of the PM insist talk of this kind is ‘overblown’ and driven by a ‘handful of people’ who have never been reconciled to his leadership.
Aides are hoping that the New Year – and the prospect of an imminent election – will ‘concentrate minds’
But, despite the relief at winning Tuesday’s vote, all it has done is kick the can down the road. The second reading of a government Bill – where MPs vote on the principle – should not be a cause for drama for any administration with a majority.
But it is only the first of many opportunities MPs will have on the legislation. MPs on the Tory Right are set on amending the Bill to ban migrants from lodging individual appeals against deportation to Rwanda – a move the PM has told them would breach international law.
Those in the Tory One Nation group have vowed to vote down the Bill if it bans individual appeals. It is very hard to see the room for compromise, and it is no surprise government sources are suggesting the final vote on the legislation could be delayed until the third week of January to give ministers more time to win over potential rebels.
Despite the comfortable nature of Tuesday’s win, the danger of defeat is still very real. If the 29 MPs who abstained had voted against the Government, the PM would have lost, dealing a crippling blow to his authority. One Tory MP who backed the Bill said that two-thirds of those supporting it were doing so through ‘gritted teeth’.
Whips are optimistic they can ‘peel off’ enough potential rebels to get the Bill over the line. Some ministers are urging the PM to call the rebels’ bluff, arguing they ‘don’t have the numbers’.
But there is a risk it could backfire. And in any case, the PM hopes – somehow – to present a united front on the issue.
Aides are hoping that the New Year – and the prospect of an imminent election – will ‘concentrate minds’.
‘We need a unified front on this to get the scheme working and show that we can deliver in a way that Labour won’t,’ said one ally.
To this end, the PM plans to start the New Year by emphasising the differences with Labour – on tax, immigration and welfare – and reminding his party that it will have to present a clear and attractive choice to the public in just a few months.
Will it be enough? Much depends on the mood of his MPs when they return in January.
If the infighting continues, then even some of Mr Sunak’s closest allies acknowledge the chances of a revival for the party are slim.
But if MPs decide to get over their differences and focus on the election, the PM’s supporters still believe they have a fighting chance of snatching a surprise victory at the polls.
As they depart for their constituencies next week, the Prime Minister will be wishing them a very merry Christmas.
Source: Read Full Article