PM’s Rwanda plan is now a leadership issue as much as a policy one

Politics

Fresh from his Commons victory, the prime minister took to the stage on Thursday to declare he was making progress on his plan to send migrants to Rwanda, his party was “completely united” and any failure to deliver on this pledge would not be down to him, but rather a new bogeyman, peers in the House of Lords.

As he warned peers not to “frustrate the will of the people” as the Rwanda bill heads for more scrutiny in the upper chamber, I found myself wondering if the prime minister and his audience of journalists were on the same planet: while Rishi Sunak said he had won the vote, two rebel sources told me that morning that “several” letters of no confidence in the prime minister had been handed into the chair of the backbench 1922 committee overnight.

Meanwhile, a number of his own MPs – including his former home secretary Suella Braverman and immigration minister Robert Jenrick – have publicly argued that failure to get flights off the ground would be the fault of no one else but the prime minister for refusing to strengthen the bill.

Politics live: Rishi Sunak taken to task over ‘utterly bizarre’ and ‘vacuous’ Rwanda news briefing

He lost two deputy party chairmen over the legislation and saw the biggest rebellions of his premiership as 60-plus of his own MPs voted for amendments to stop individual claims and block international courts from grounding flights.

He was also, after all this infighting, polling at levels not seen since the days of Liz Truss, with the Conservatives on 20% in a YouGov poll released last night.

After all that, it might have been better to perhaps not say anything today at all.

One former cabinet minister told me shortly after watching some of the media conference that they found it all rather “odd” and would have counselled the prime minister not to amplify a policy that many think won’t work and has split his party anymore.

“The whole thing is a crazy hill to be fighting on. People now think we are a single issue party,” texted the former cabinet minister, adding in a blowing-up head emoji for good measure.

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PM defends his position amid polls

The logic surely has to be that the prime minister, having won the day, needed to set up a different enemy – the House of Lords – while cautioning that he might not win war.

Because as he tried to deflect the problems away from himself, he also used the media conference to row back on the pledge he made last November that he would get flights away as planned in spring.

Back then, on the back of the Supreme Court ruling that Rwanda was not a safe country, the prime minister told journalists he would “take all necessary steps to ensure we can remove any further blockages to us getting this policy executed and getting planes leaving as planned in the spring of [2024]”.

He went on to say “we are working extremely hard to make sure we can get a plane off as planned in the spring”.

Fast forward to January and Mr Sunak is now refusing to repeat that ambition, refusing on Thursday to say whether he expects asylum seekers to be sent from the UK to Rwanda before the next election. Now it’s “I want to see this happen as soon as practically possible… we are working as fast as we possibly can”.

When I asked him what his message is to those putting in letters of no confidence, who believe Mr Sunak is the “wrong man for the job”, the prime minister didn’t take on the question directly but rather deflected, saying: “I’m interested in sticking with the plan I set out for the British people because that plan is working.

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What next for Rwanda bill?

“It is delivering real change, and if we stick with that plan, we’ll be able to build a brighter future for everyone’s families in this country and a renewed sense of pride in our nation.”

But he can say what he likes, the public seem to have decided that he isn’t working, with his polling after 15 months at the same level seen under Ms Truss.

And as for blaming peers, it might get him the headline he’s looking for today, but what happens come the spring and summer if the flights are still not off the ground and boat crossing are on the rise? Will those rebels such as Ms Braverman and Mr Jenrick blame the House of Lords, or their own prime minister for refusing to strengthen the bill?

Read more:
PM ‘clear’ he’ll ignore international law to deport asylum seekers
Sunak challenges Lords to pass bill – what happens next?

I’m told that not one of the 45 MPs in the room of rebels discussing how to vote on Wednesday night believed the bill will work, but didn’t want to risk collapsing the government.

One rebel figure told me they thought there was a 5% chance the flights get off the ground. Mr Sunak of course is gambling that they are wrong and he can get flights away.

But much of this is not in his control, which is why making this a totemic promise of his premiership was a mistake. Because this has become a leadership issue as much as a policy one. And leadership rivals now circling, won’t hesitate to put failure firmly at his door.

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