Rishi Sunak’s authority has been dealt a fresh blow as two Tory deputy chairmen resigned to join a major Conservative rebellion over his Bill aimed at reviving the stalled Rwanda plan.
Lee Anderson and Brendan Clarke-Smith stepped down in order to vote for two amendments that right-wing MPs claim will help to protect the Government’s flagship asylum policy from legal challenge.
Jane Stevenson also quit her role as a parliamentary private secretary in the Department for Business and Trade to back changes put forward by Conservative backbenchers.
Mr Anderson and Mr Clarke-Smith backed amendments tabled by former immigration minister Robert Jenrick and veteran Tory Sir Bill Cash “not because we are against the legislation, but because like everybody else we want it to work”, they said.
In a joint letter to the Prime Minister, the two senior red-wall MPs said it was “important in terms of credibility” they continue to argue that measures are needed to ensure the plan is “legally wateright”.
Speaking after his resignation, Mr Anderson told GB News: “I don’t think I could carry on in my role when I fundamentally disagree with the Bill. I can’t be in a position to vote for something I don’t believe in.”
This explains everything. pic.twitter.com/kEqronYD9i
— Lee Anderson MP (@LeeAndersonMP_) January 16, 2024
He said he believes the Bill “could work” and insisted the Prime Minister still had “100%” of his support.
Some 68 MPs, including 60 Tories, voted in favour of changes to the Safety of Rwanda Bill put forward by Conservative backbencher Sir Bill, which seek to ensure UK and international law cannot be used to block a person being removed to Rwanda.
The amendment was rejected by a majority of 461, but the rebellion gives an indication of the scale of unease within the Conservative Party during an election year.
The scope of the rebellion would be more than enough to sink the Bill and overturn the Government’s working majority of 54 if it were repeated at its final Commons hurdle – third reading – which is expected on Wednesday.
However, no Conservatives voted against the legislation at second reading – despite similar warnings from the right of the party which had appeared to put its fate in jeopardy beforehand.
Former prime minister Liz Truss, former ministers Suella Braverman and Sir Simon Clarke and former leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith were also among those to back the amendments.
Mr Jenrick had aimed to change the Bill to severely limit individual asylum seekers’ ability to appeal against being put on a flight to Kigali.
The Commons later rejected his amendment 525 to 58, majority 467.
Under the Government’s plan, migrants who cross the English Channel on small boats could be sent on a one-way trip to Rwanda rather than being allowed to try to seek asylum in the UK.
The legislation along with a recently signed treaty with Kigali are aimed at ensuring the scheme is legally watertight following a Supreme Court ruling against it last year.
The stalled policy comes with a £290 million bill but no asylum seekers arriving via unauthorised routes have been relocated as yet following a series of challenges in the courts.
I have offered my resignation as a PPS this evening. I don't consider my votes to have been anti-Govt, but they do warrant resignation. In the Chamber earlier I paid tribute to @RishiSunak's work so far & welcomed his commitment made in Rome in Dec to lead talks on 🌍 frameworks
— Jane Stevenson MP (@Jane_Stevenson_) January 16, 2024
Some senior figures have threatened to vote down the Bill if it is not changed before it faces its final Commons hurdle – the third reading.
Former Cabinet minister Sir Simon Clarke said he was not “f****** around” and declared: “I will vote against if the legislation isn’t amended. Simple as that.”
Mr Jenrick, who resigned in protest over Mr Sunak’s plan to revive the grounded plan and has since led calls to harden the legislation, said it was “legally flawed” in Tuesday’s Commons showdown.
“Time and again we will lose these cases in the courts. So the Bill in that respect is legally flawed,” he told MPs.
European Research Group chairman Mark Francois did not rule out voting against the Bill, saying only that “the numbers speak for themselves” when asked if it had his support.
Danny Kruger, co-chairman of the New Conservatives coalition of Tory MPs, said he was “prepared” to vote against the Rwanda Bill but said he hopes the Government will continue with “constructive conversations”.
Mr Kruger told the PA news agency: “I think the size of the rebellion shows that a signifiant number of Conservative colleagues are serious about amending this Bill.”
He conceded it was “painful to break the whip”, but said: “I hope the Government will continue the constructive conversations we’ve had and we will get into a better place tomorrow.”
Co-chairwoman Miriam Cates warned she was also prepared to vote against the Government, saying “we’ll see what the Bill looks like at the end of the day” on Wednesday.
Former first secretary of state Damian Green, a member of the One Nation caucus of moderate Tory MPs, urged colleagues to back the Bill on Wednesday.
He told Sky News Tuesday’s show of defiance was “the high watermark” of the rebellion, and said the “rational” approach would be to support legislation “that moves the dial in the direction they (MPs) want it moved in”.
A Downing Street source said: “The PM accepts their resignation and thanks both Lee and Brendan for their dedication and hard work for the Conservative Party.
“This is the toughest legislation ever brought before Parliament to tackle illegal migration.
“This Bill will make it clear that if you come here illegally, you will not be able to stay. We must pass this Bill to deliver what all Conservatives want – a credible plan to stop the boats.”
Mr Sunak had sought to quell a revolt by promising to defy so-called Rule 39 injunctions from Strasbourg, which can block deportation flights from taking off, in order to get the scheme running.
But he has stopped short of caving to the demands tabled in the amendments, and to do so would risk losing support among the centrist wing of his party which wants to ensure that international law to be respected.
Opposition critics accused the Prime Minister of weakness and said the resignations showed that “even senior Tories think that the Conservatives have failed.”
Pat McFadden MP, Labour’s national campaign co-ordinator, said: “Rishi Sunak is too weak to lead his party and too weak to lead the country.”
The Liberal Democrats said the Prime Minister has “again been embarrassed by his own MPs”.
The party’s home affairs spokesperson Alistair Carmichael said: “If the Prime Minister can’t even settle squabbles in his own party, how can he be expected to run the country?”