LONDON — It’s every Conservative leader’s nightmare. Rishi Sunak is trapped in a Brexit-style battle with his mutinous party — and is running out of options fast.
With less than a year to go until an expected general election, the British prime minister is locked in a death spiral with his own backbenchers over the totemic issue of immigration.
At best, the struggle looks set to tie up Sunak’s ailing government for months to come. At worst, it could bring down his premiership.
“Rishi wouldn’t be here if there was a viable alternative,” said a former party aide with links to the Tory right. (The aide, like others in this story, was granted anonymity to speak candidly about internal party matters.)
Ominously for Sunak, the bitter row which has erupted between prime minister and backbenchers has strong echoes of the Brexit struggles of 2018 and 2019 which consumed — and ultimately destroyed — Theresa May.
While May’s impossible task was to find a way to leave the European Union that would draw majority support within her party, Sunak’s is to keep a personal pledge to stop undocumented migrants arriving on U.K. shores.
The crisis was triggered when Sunak’s flagship plan to send asylum seekers to the central African nation of Rwanda for resettlement was judged illegal by the U.K. Supreme Court. Last week the PM put forward emergency legislation designed to override judges’ concerns.
But his party is split down the middle on how far he should go — with those on the right demanding even tougher legislation, and those on the left warning they will not support anything which breaches international law.
Sunak’s increasingly hardline immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, has already quit in protest — just as Boris Johnson quit May’s Cabinet in 2018 — warning the PM’s proposed laws do not got far enough.
And like May, Sunak now faces an uphill struggle to get his hallmark policy through parliament — with potentially devastating consequences for his authority if he fails.
“There are huge similarities [with the struggle over Brexit]” said Gavin Barwell, May’s former chief of staff in No. 10 Downing Street.
“You’ve got a party that’s basically unleadable, groups asking for mutually inconsistent things, certain MPs asking for stuff that is almost certainly impossible for the prime minister to deliver.
“You’ve got people resigning from government more, it feels, with an eye on future leadership elections, than the substance of the issue that they’re dealing with.
“And you’ve got the party obsessively focused on one small issue, to the exclusion of all the other things that voters might care about,” he added.
The Brexit parallels even extend to the same familiar cast of Tory characters, many of whom have made cutting immigration their cause célèbre since the fight to take Britain out of the European Union was finally won.
The pugilistic former Defense Minister Mark Francois, a leading figure in the influential European Research Group (ERG) of hard Brexiteers during the May years, once again took center stage on Monday afternoon.
He relished addressing a Westminster press pack waiting to hear if his right-wing caucus might deliver a fatal blow to Sunak’s Rwanda legislation in its first House of Commons vote on Tuesday, and later toured broadcast studios to ensure his scathing verdict played out on news channels all afternoon.
“The government will be best advised to pull the bill and come up with a revised version that works better than this one, which has so many holes in it,” Francois warned.
Another Brexit-era figure, veteran Tory MP and lawyer Bill Cash, has again convened a “Star Chamber” of legal experts to cast a skeptical eye over the government’s plans. His group’s verdicts on May’s Brexit deals in 2019 were often cited by Tory rebels as they voted them down — and on Monday, Cash’s group pronounced that Sunak’s legislation does not go far enough in preventing possible legal challenges to the deportation plan.
Worryingly for Sunak, newer Tory caucuses are now threatening to join forces with these veteran Brexiteers. Francois appeared alongside Danny Kruger, who only became an MP in 2019, and whose New Conservatives have made cutting migration numbers their central cause.
MPs linked to the latter group claimed on Monday evening they have sufficient numbers to vote down the bill on Tuesday if they choose.
Such an outcome would plunge Sunak’s leadership into full-blown crisis — and leave him with no obvious way forward. Downing Street fears that toughening the laws could put Britain in breach of international law, alienating droves of moderate Tory MPs and estranging Britain’s allies on the world stage.
Rishi Sunak’s salesmen
One of the PM’s problems is that unlike Theresa May — who always offered Cabinet posts to hardline Brexiteers in an effort to keep the wings of her party together — Sunak has few senior allies who speak the ERG’s language.
His decision to sack Home Secretary Suella Braverman, a darling of the anti-immigration right, and bring in former Prime Minister David Cameron — an arch-Remainer — in last month’s Cabinet reshuffle enraged the right of the party.
“That reshuffle is going to go down as one of the worst reshuffles ever,” the former government aide quoted at the top of the story said. “That was when [Sunak’s] power drained away.
“He used the reshuffle to tell the right to fuck off, and that was catastrophic for him.”
Braverman’s affable replacement, James Cleverly — though himself a Brexiteer in 2016 — has not been viewed as the unity figure No. 10 had hoped, having declared the Rwanda policy is “not the be all and end all” in a newspaper interview after he was appointed.
“The way colleagues have reacted to Cleverly, they are furious with him. He has killed any leadership chances in the last two weeks,” one former Cabinet minister said.
And look who’s back
The Brexit parallels are such that even Nigel Farage is back on the scene, having made it to the final of the wildly popular reality TV show “I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!” this past weekend.
In an interview with the Sun just hours after leaving the Australian jungle, Farage described Sunak’s Rwanda bill as a “total joke,” and urged Tory MPs to vote it down. Rumors are swirling that Farage will return to the political scene next year with his startup Reform UK party, scooping up disgruntled Tory voters from the right.
For Sunak, this would be the most worrying Brexit-era retread of all.
The surging popularity of Farage’s Brexit Party in 2019 was the final nail in the coffin of the May premiership, pushing panicked Tory MPs to replace her with Johnson.
“Once the question became who can beat Nigel Farage, there was only going to be one winner — and that was Boris,” recalled the former Tory aide quoted above.
The one positive for Sunak right now is that Johnson’s decision to quit parliament last summer means there is currently no obvious challenger for the Tory crown. Few on the right believe Braverman or Jenrick have the same populist appeal as Johnson.
“[Sunak] would definitely be gone if Boris was still in parliament,” the aide quoted above said.
For now, Sunak can only hope his fractious party eventually falls into line. History suggests they will not do so without a fight.
Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting