Unlock the Editor’s Digest for free
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Rishi Sunak headed off a Conservative revolt over his flagship Rwanda migration bill on Tuesday night, as the House of Commons voted by 313 to 269 to back the legislation in principle.
It was a comfortable victory for Sunak over right-wing Tory rebels, but the government majority of 44 was only secured after a day of pleading and arm-twisting, and with warnings that the revolt is far from over.
Just before the 7pm vote the Tory right blinked. Mark Francois, head of the European Research Group, announced after a meeting of potential rebels that most of them would abstain rather than vote against.
Downing Street was relieved that not a single Tory MP voted against the bill at its so-called second reading, while 38 Tory MPs either abstained or were absent, including former home office ministers Suella Braverman and Robert Jenrick.
But Francois threatened that rebels could vote down the entire bill at its next Commons vote, known as the third reading, unless Sunak follows through on his offer to “tighten” legislation which they regard as too weak.
“We have decided collectively that we cannot support the bill tonight because of its many omissions,” Francois said after a meeting of the self-described “five families” group of right-wing Tory MP factions.
Francois said he expected the government to accept amendments from the Tory right when the bill returns to the Commons early next year, adding: “We agree to reserve the right to vote against it at third reading.”
Sunak wants to get his Safety of Rwanda bill on to the statute book in early 2024 with the first asylum seekers deported to the east African country “by the spring”, ahead of an expected general election next year.
During a frenetic day at Westminster, Sunak urged rebels to back him over breakfast in Downing Street, while party whips were accused by some Tory MPs of heavy-handed tactics ahead of the vote at 7.15pm.
Such was the nervousness in Downing Street that Sunak could be defeated that all MPs were recalled from foreign trips, including minister Graham Stuart who was representing the UK at climate talks in Dubai.
Sunak promised rebels that he was open to “tightening” the bill, which declares Rwanda “safe” and seeks to limit the chances of migrants successfully appealing against being sent there.
But the prime minister was not specific about how he might tweak the bill and he has been warned by the moderate One Nation group of Tory MPs, which counts over 100 members, not to give any ground to the right.
“This was the moment of maximum leverage for opponents of the bill and the government rightly told them to fuck off,” said one senior Tory MP who backed the legislation.
Sir Robert Buckland, former justice secretary and a member of One Nation, said: “As a group we feel thus far and no further.” He added that “if anything, this bill needs to be drawn back the other way”.
The discussions came as an asylum seeker housed by the government on the Bibby Stockholm barge was reported dead on Tuesday. Richard Drax, Conservative MP for South Dorset where the barge is located, said the individual had died by suicide.
It would only have taken 29 Tory MPs voting with the Labour opposition to defeat the bill on its second reading. No government has lost such a vote at this stage of its parliamentary proceedings since 1986.
As the Commons debate got under way on Tuesday, home secretary James Cleverly argued that the bill pushed the envelope of international law.
Sir Keir Starmer, Labour leader, said in a speech on Tuesday that £290mn of taxpayers’ money had been spent on the scheme in “a failed exercise in Conservative party management”.
Sunak brought forward the legislation to declare Rwanda a “safe” country after the Supreme Court ruled that his migration scheme was unlawful.
The bill declares that Rwanda is a safe country for asylum seekers and disapplies parts of the UK’s 1998 Human Rights Act, but migrants could still lodge appeals on the basis of individual circumstances.
The Labour party, which is leading in opinion polls by an average 18 points, has said it will scrap the scheme if it wins the election expected next year.
Additional reporting by William Wallis