Rishi Sunak has suffered a major blow ahead of a Commons showdown over his flagship Rwanda Bill as two Conservative deputy chairmen said they would join a rebellion.
Lee Anderson and Brendan Clarke-Smith on Monday evening vowed to back right-wing amendments to toughen up the legislation aimed at reviving the stalled plan to deport some asylum seekers to the east African nation.
It signals trouble ahead for the Prime Minister as his party is deeply divided over a Bill that faces crunch votes this week.
The Rwanda Bill.
I have signed the Cash & Jenrick amendments.
I will vote for them.
— Lee Anderson MP (@LeeAndersonMP_) January 15, 2024
Mr Anderson and Mr Clarke-Smith said they would defy the Government by joining more than 60 Tory MPs who are seeking to disapply international law from the Bill and curtail asylum seekers’ rights to appeal against flights to Kigali.
But any attempt by Mr Sunak to placate them would be opposed by more moderate Tories, who are keen to protect the legislation against breaches of international law.
The amendments gaining support among backbenchers were tabled by Robert Jenrick, who resigned as immigration minister over the legislation, and veteran Tory Sir Bill Cash.
Mr Anderson tweeted: “I have signed the Cash & Jenrick amendments.
“I will vote for them.”
When I was elected in 2019 I promised my constituents we would take back control. I want this legislation to be as strong as possible and therefore I will be supporting the Jenrick/Cash amendments. These are arguments I have consistently made and will continue to make. #Rwanda
— Brendan Clarke-Smith MP (@Bren4Bassetlaw) January 15, 2024
Mr Clarke-Smith, who was only appointed deputy chairman seven weeks ago, wrote: “When I was elected in 2019 I promised my constituents we would take back control.
“I want this legislation to be as strong as possible and therefore I will be supporting the Jenrick/Cash amendments.”
While the deputy chairmanship is not a Government role, holders would be expected to back its positions.
The whips’ office said rumours that Mr Anderson had been assured he could back the changes without being sacked were untrue.
Asked whether he would keep his job, Mr Clarke-Smith told reporters: “We’ll see, it’s not for me to decide.”
Mr Jenrick said he would vote against the Bill if ministers do not beef it up and it “doesn’t work”.
He told GB News: “If the Prime Minister wants his Government to be re-elected at the next general election, we’ve got to get this right, this is the last opportunity to do so.
“We’ve done three failed bills in three years. Three strikes and we’re out.”
If they are selected, the amendments are unlikely to pass as they will not get Labour support, but the real test will come at the third reading when rebels may vote against the entire Bill.
The whips’ office said rumours that Mr Anderson, who does not hold a Government role but would be expected to back its positions, had been assured he could back the changes without being sacked were untrue.
Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch, who is popular among the Tory grassroots, is also understood to have called for asylum seekers to be prevented from lodging individual legal appeals against their removals to Kigali.
On the eve of the Commons showdown, Tory political strategist Isaac Levido warned feuding MPs at the 1922 committee of backbenchers: “Let me be clear. Divided parties fail.”
Earlier, Mr Sunak said he was “talking to all my colleagues” as he and his allies sought to avoid another open display of infighting between Conservative factions.
In an apparent attempt to woo wavering hardliners, he said there were circumstances under which he would be prepared to ignore injunctions from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg – so-called Rule 39 orders – blocking flights from taking off to Rwanda.
Speaking to GB News, the Prime Minister said: “I don’t think Strasbourg will intervene because of the checks and balances in our system, but of course there will be individual circumstances that people will want us to consider on the facts.
“If you’re asking me are there circumstances in which I’m prepared to ignore those rule 39s, then, yes, of course there are.”
But rebels dismissed the claim, with right-winger Sir John Hayes saying Mr Sunak’s verbal promises were not enough.
“The pledge needs to be backed up by legal provisions,” he told Andrew Marr on LBC.
If the rebels were successful, blocking the Prime Minister’s flagship Bill would trigger fresh chaos, which might make opponents toe the line to let it pass.
Meanwhile, centrist Tories warned that any caving to right-wingers’ demands would “cause problems” for them.
Ahead of a meeting of the One Nation group of Conservative MPs in Parliament, former justice secretary Sir Robert Buckland told the PA news agency: “I think in a nutshell, the Government would be best advised not to accept any of the amendments from my colleagues on the right, because the Bill then will cause a problem for us here.
“So we’re hoping that common sense will prevail.”
One Nation chairman Damian Green said: “We’ve made our position clear that we, for all our reservations, we voted for the Bill at second reading. And we want the Government to carry it through unamended.”
Small boat crossings are down 20%. But we need to go further.
Under my leadership, we will stop the boats. pic.twitter.com/U45bkGPb6Z
— Rishi Sunak (@RishiSunak) June 5, 2023
Mr Sunak has previously argued that moving a further “inch” on the Bill would risk the Rwandan government quitting the deal.
The Government’s Bill and a treaty with Rwanda are intended to make the scheme legally watertight following a Supreme Court ruling against the plan.
As part of the plan to deter small boat crossings of the English Channel, ministers want to be able to send migrants on a one-way trip to Rwanda, where they will be able to seek asylum.
The scale of the small boats problem was highlighted on Sunday when five more people died trying to cross the Channel from France.