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Resignations, Rebel Votes Expose Sunak’s Weak Grip on Party

(Bloomberg) -- Rishi Sunak suffered a major blow to his leadership as two top Conservative Party officials quit to join dozens of ruling party lawmakers voting to change the UK prime minister’s signature legislation to curb migration across the English Channel.

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Deputy Party Chairman Lee Anderson — who was appointed last year to firm up Sunak’s position with the nation’s populist right — quit as Tory members of Parliament sought to toughen the government’s law to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda. The issue has become a totemic one on the party’s fringes, where a crackdown on immigration is seen as critical to their chances of staying in power after a UK vote expected in the autumn.

In the House of Commons, the rebels showed they have the numbers to defeat Sunak’s bill in a crunch vote Wednesday — depending on whether they continue to rebel and what the opposition parties decide to do. So far only half a dozen Conservatives have said they would vote against the bill in its entirety.

Speaking to broadcasters on Wednesday morning, Illegal Migration Minister Michael Tomlinson said the government expected to see its legislation pass later. “We are not going to be defeated tonight,” he told LBC radio

The dramatic events on Tuesday — Brendan Clarke-Smith, another deputy chair, also resigned — again demonstrated Sunak’s tenuous control over his party. Though they didn’t launch a diatribe against the premier, the resignations will anger Sunak’s critics because Clarke-Smith and especially Anderson are seen as electoral assets and because their decision appeared to extinguish any hope that the prime minister would budge on their demands.

Anderson’s move comes less than a week after he and Sunak appeared in a Tory campaign video that was meant to demonstrate unity, as they talked up their record on so-called culture war issues including tackling immigration.

“We have already had two pieces of legislation thwarted by a system that does not work in favor of the British people,” Anderson and Clarke-Smith said in a joint resignation letter posted on X, formerly Twitter. “It is for this reason that we have supported the amendments to the Rwanda Bill.”

The premier has argued that the Rwanda deportation bill is as tough as international law allows and going further would see the African nation pull out.

Anderson, who has his own show on the right-wing GB News channel, and Clarke-Smith were elected in 2019 in the so-called Red Wall, traditional Labour constituencies which switched to the Conservatives that year. The Tories must hold those areas if they are to have any chance of overturning a 20-point poll deficit against the Labour Party at the election.

In a further blow to Sunak, House of Commons votes on amendments put forward by the rebel Tories show they have enough MPs to defeat Sunak in a final vote on Wednesday — if the opposition parties try to block the legislation as expected. A total of 68 MPs supported a proposal to remove the application of international law on the Rwanda plan.

A proposed change put forward by former immigration minister Robert Jenrick — who quit last month in what was widely seen as a bid to bolster his own Tory leadership credentials — won the support of 58 MPs. Though the government easily won because opposition MPs didn’t support the Tory rebels, the numbers will raise alarm bells for Sunak.

The government’s working majority in the House of Commons is 54, according to the Parliament website, meaning if about half of the Tory rebels and the opposition parties join forces, his flagship legislation could be over. That won’t necessarily be the case — the expectation is some rebels will ultimately support the government in the final tally.

But Sunak would have hoped for a smoother few days after Tory officials briefed that the rebels did not have anywhere near the numbers to cause trouble. More broadly, the events raise further questions about Sunak’s power and will likely put Tory splits on newspaper front pages at a critical time.

It also means that restless Tory rebels have not heeded the warnings of Sunak’s top political strategist, who told them Monday that divisions would mean certain defeat in the UK general election.

Some Tory MPs described their party as unmanageable and unpredictable ahead of the key vote on Wednesday. One rebel said they still expect the government to ultimately win that vote, but that Sunak’s team had handled the situation badly and irritated MPs by suggesting their amendments would be seriously considered, only to then refuse to back any steps to toughen the Rwanda bill.

Another said the scale of Tuesday’s rebellion showed Wednesday’s vote would be closer than Sunak’s office would like. An MP loyal to Sunak suggested the government would find a form of words before the final vote to strengthen the bill to win over some rebels, though they also conceded it meant another week of bad press for the government.

The row over Sunak’s deportation plan resembles the years of Tory wrangling over Brexit, and calls for the UK to break international law have become a matter of purity for right-wing Conservatives. There’s also a widespread perception within the party that what’s really happening is jostling for position in a leadership contest they assume will come after the Tories lose the election.

“They seem to be throwing in the towel,” Tory campaign chief Isaac Levido told MPs at a closed-door meeting, according to a transcript provided by a party official.

Among the most prominent is former Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who was fired late last year in part because of her outspoken remarks on everything from the homeless to migrants and the police. Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch is another seen as having leadership ambitions. Her chief parliamentary aide Jane Stevenson also resigned Tuesday to vote for the rebel amendments.

Another major problem for Sunak is that even if his Rwanda bill passes the Commons as expected, it’s likely to face strong resistance in the House of Lords. And Tuesday’s votes show just how many Tory MPs are ready to snipe at the premier in public for as long as deportation flights are not taking off.

--With assistance from Kitty Donaldson.

(Adds comment from minister in fourth paragraph.)

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