Rwanda vote is a win for Sunak, but it has come at a cost

In the end the rebellion melted away.

For all the talk publicly on Tuesday from rebels that this was about the substance of the bill and definitely NOT a confidence issue in the prime minister, when it came to voting down their leader's flagship Rwanda plan down, all but 11 rebels caved.

Even as they prepared to walk through the voting lobbies with Rishi Sunak, there was talk about being angry and disappointed in how the government had handled the rebels, but sources in the room tell me that the majority of potential rebels in the end decided they couldn't, in good conscience, risk collapsing Rishi Sunak's government.

I'm told that many in the room were swayed by an unlikely ally to the PM, Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg, who told colleagues that this bill wasn't perfect but was better than no bill at all, and warned MPs they should only defy Mr Sunak if they were prepared to contemplate a smorgasbord of options from a change of leader, the government falling and a possible early general election.

Read more:
Migrant crisis: Footage shows boat attempting to cross Channel
Battles on the backbenches - what are the different factions in the Conservative Party?

The win is no doubt a moment to savour for the PM. But it is a win that has cost him. His authority has been tested, and his party remains divided. He didn't prevail by winning the rebels round but rather came through because MPs decided supporting this bill was better than the other options.

Sir Robert Buckland told me after the vote that the majority of 44 - the same as at second reading - demonstrated the party was getting its act together after months of division and had started the new year with a "will to win".

But the vote on ex-immigration minister Robert Jenrick's amendment earlier in the evening told a different story. It was the biggest Tory rebellion of Sunak's premiership so far, with 61 Tories backing the amendment. Mr Sunak might have won the vote on the third reading but he was roughed up along the way.

This is a party still deeply divided, while rivals' grievances have only grown through these bitter disagreements over how to get the Rwanda policy up and running.

Should the prime minister fail to get flights away by the spring as he's pledged, the rebels will feel vindicated in their warnings this week that celebrating a win now will count for nothing if in a few months the boats keep coming.

Wednesday night then was only the end of the beginning. The PM now faces hurdles in the House of Lords where peers are likely to try to dilute the legislation, which in turn could cause him headaches in the Commons given that there are plenty of rebels who held their noses this time around, but could baulk at this bill being watered down further.

And then, beyond the parliamentary back and forth, is the question of the courts and legal challenges that could throw a spanner in the works again for Mr Sunak.

But forget for a minute these battles with MPs, with peers, with the courts. The prime minister promised voters a year ago he would "stop the boats" and pledged late last year to get flights away by this spring.

On the night he won the vote, a You Gov poll in The Times showed support for the Tories under the PM has fallen to the lowest level since Liz Truss was in No 10, dropping to 20%, while Labour has a 27 point lead.

Win or not in the Commons, Mr Sunak is losing big with voters and his rebels don't believe this bill has the grit to turn the Rwanda policy, and linked to that, the Tory party's fortunes around. But he has at least, for the moment, bought himself more time.