LONDON — Rishi Sunak might just be better off staying in bed on Tuesday.
The embattled U.K. prime minister is on a last-minute charm offensive as he tries to get a massively controversial piece of asylum legislation through the House of Commons. Critics on both sides of his governing Conservative Party have knives out — and it’s going to be a major test of his authority, with few good outcomes.
Let POLITICO walk you through the latest Tory drama — and try to work out (with massive caveats) what the hell happens next.
So what’s everyone squabbling about?
Asylum policy. Specifically, the long-running Conservative promise to deport undocumented migrants to Rwanda.
The hardline plan is meant to deter people from crossing the English Channel in small boats, and thereby help Sunak meet a big promise to “Stop the Boats” amid concerns about migration.
In a bid to get around those concerns, Sunak last week unveiled a twin package: a new treaty with Rwanda aimed at shoring up its own asylum system, and fresh “emergency” legislation curtailing the routes to legally challenge the plan.
So why the Tory row?
Basically, nobody’s happy with the plan.
While there’s grumbling about the cost of the Rwanda treaty, it’s the legislation itself — the snappily-titled Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill — that’s causing the real row.
Critics of the plan fall into two (slightly messy, and not entirely united) camps.
MPs on Sunak’s right — through a host of splinter groups including the European Research Group, Common Sense Group and the New Conservatives — essentially argue that Sunak has failed to legally bomb-proof his Rwanda plan and that it will continue to face a host of challenges in the courts because he’s shied away from the most hardline version.
Robert Jenrick quit as Sunak’s immigration minister last week just as the plan was unveiled, and wants it to go much further in setting aside human rights law. A “star chamber” of Tory legal minds on the right sounded deeply skeptical Monday, branding it “partial and incomplete” and urging Sunak to beef the whole thing up.
Robert Jenrick quit as Sunak’s immigration minister last week | Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images
They’re not the only ones piling pressure, either. While they’re traditionally less rebellious and likely smaller in number, some of Sunak’s centrist Tories — who label themselves One Nation Conservatives — argue that the plan sends out precisely the wrong message about the U.K.’s commitment to international law and treatment of refugees.
And that means the prime minister is in a real bind as Tuesday’s vote comes into view.
What’s actually happening Tuesday?
The Rwanda Bill undergoes what’s known as “second reading” in the House of Commons. It’s the first opportunity for MPs to properly debate its principles and, crucially, vote on it. The debate kicks off around lunchtime, and the crunch vote comes at 7 p.m. U.K. time.
This is the moment all the speculation and spin about the level of support Sunak really has falls away: and MPs actually cast their votes.
So how will that play out?
Okay, we don’t have a crystal ball but, broadly, there are three possible outcomes.
The (vanishingly unlikely) dream scenario for Sunak is that the whole thing sails through on his decent House of Commons majority. His many critics will happily drop their objections, and the bill will proceed to its next stages.
While that’d still be a long way from getting Rwandan deportation flights off the ground unimpeded by the courts, it would allow the prime minister to show he’s getting on with the job.
At the other end of the scale is the disaster outcome for Sunak: defeat on the bill. And if that happens, all bets are off.
The Conservatives’ working majority in the Commons at the moment is 56 — meaning that if just 29 Conservative MPs vote against the bill, it’ll fail.
Sunak has insisted the legislation is not a confidence matter, meaning his government can technically carry on and potentially come back with a tweaked version to try and appease critics.
But, make no mistake, defeat at second reading would be a real humiliation for the prime minister on something he’s made the center-piece of his domestic pitch to voters. It would raise serious questions about his ability to pass other bills, and could see calls for Sunak to quit and trigger (yet another) Conservative leadership election — or even a general election — reach fever pitch.
Is there a happy third way here?
Not really. The third outcome — which currently seems most likely — is less extreme, but arguably still damaging for the prime minister.
Migrants arrive at Dover port after being picked up in the English Channel by the Border Force | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Conservative MPs who don’t want to go for the nuclear option of voting against their own government have the option to abstain on the bill. That should spare Sunak a straight defeat — but bring its own host of problems.
Westminster watchers will be poring over the list of abstentions Tuesday night to see who’s unwilling to openly back the prime minister, while looking to the massive fight ahead.
Some critical MPs might also vote for the bill but with massive caveats — making it crystal clear they plan to try and amend the whole thing later and teeing up a new year fight.
So Tory MPs will effectively put their own boss on notice and make clear that they want him to change course. If he doesn’t do so, expect rebel amendments to the bill at its next Commons stages. And plenty more squabbling.
Why doesn’t Sunak just toughen up the bill to appease critics?
If he skews the bill further to the right, Sunak risks alienating the One Nation Tories further. But perhaps more damagingly, he’ll risk further riling up the House of Lords, which has form in beating up the government on controversial migration legislation.
While it can’t ultimately kill off legislation, a protracted fight with the House of Lords is the last thing Sunak needs right now, as the clock ticks down to a general election and as he tries to show voters he’s cracking on with his Rwanda plan.
Sunak’s critics on the right will argue meanwhile that if he doesn’t bend to their will, the whole Rwanda policy will just be waylaid in the courts anyway — and that planned flights to Rwanda will never get off the ground, resulting in broken promises.
Either way, don’t expect to hear this last of this one Tuesday.