Rishi Sunak has failed to stem the crisis threatening to destabilise his leadership after he warned Tory rebels his Rwanda plan is the only way to stop small boat crossings.
At a hastily arranged press conference, just hours after the government was rocked by the resignation of immigration minister Robert Jenrick, the PM told his critics their demands would see the controversial scheme collapse.
Despite the attempt to assert his authority, MPs on both sides of the party indicated they could revolt in a key Commons showdown next week.
Mr Sunak has faced a torrid 24 hours since he failed to appease the Tory right with his emergency Rwanda bill.
He was forced to deny his government had become a “joke” and a “laughing stock” over the failed plan to deport asylum seekers – as he appeared to plead with Labour to back his under-threat legislative plan.
With a major revolt now threatening his premiership, he also dodged questions about whether he could be forced to call a general election if he cannot get flights to Rwanda in the air.
Mr Sunak claimed there was only “an inch” between him and MPs on the right of the party – but hardliners remain furious that he chose not to opt out of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR).
Rishi Sunak ducked questions on whether a general election could be forced (James Manning/PA Wire)
There is growing speculation that Mr Sunak will have to make Tuesday’s showdown vote a confidence issue in the government – threatening his MPs with expulsion and a general election if they defy him.
A tetchy Mr Sunak denied that he was ready to make it a “back me or sack me” vote during a hastily-convened press conference on Thursday. Asked whether he would expel Tory MPs who vote against it, Mr Sunak said: “No”.
Ducking questions on a general election, and said MPs had to show voters they cared about their priorities. “What this vote is about is confidence in parliament – to show it gets the British people’s frustration.” he said.
But neither wing of his party was immediately convinced by Mr Sunak’s attempted show of strength.
The European Research Group (ERG) of eurosceptics on the right of the party said its “star chamber” could take a few days to assess whether or not MPs should back the new emergency legislation. The
One Nation group of more moderate Tory MPs said they were nervous about the Bill, raising the prospect they could urge their members to vote against it.
Senior Tory MP Tobias Ellwood said he would not support the Rwanda bill if there was “any prospect” of breaking international law, and warned the issue could see the Conservative Party “splinter in two”.
But former Tory leader Lord Howard came out backing Mr Sunak, saying of the bill : “I very much hope it will command the support of Conservative members of parliament.”
He added: “If Lord Sumption, who is a former justice of our Supreme Court thinks it can work, I am certainly prepared to take his word for it.”
Earlier Mr Sunak appeared to plead with Labour to help him push through his bill, which “disapplies” the UK Human Rights Act from Rwanda deportation cases.
Mr Sunak said: “The real question, when it comes to all these votes, if for the Labour party. So the real question when it comes to parliament … what are the Labour party going to do about this vote?”
Rishi Sunak defended his plan at a surprise press conference on Thursday (PA)
Mr Sunak claimed there is not much difference between him and right-wing Tory rebels. “The difference between them and me is an inch … but that is the difference, by the way, between the Rwandans particle in the scheme of not,” said the PM.
The Tory leader warned right-wing Tory MPs that the Rwandan government would pull out of the entire deportation plan. “If we go any further the entire scheme will collapse and there is no point having a bill with nowhere to send people to.”
Asked if his government was now a “joke” and a “laughing stock” on immigration, Mr Sunak insisted that small boat crossing were down, and that his Rwanda flights plan would work. “Look at the results … the number of people crossing from France to the UK this year is down by a third, right?”
In his scathing resignation letter, Mr Jenrick made clear he wanted to bypass the ECHR – calling the bill “a triumph of hope over experience”. Sacked home secretary Suella Braverman told the BBC: “Ultimately, this bill will fail.”
Mr Sunak now faces an uphill battle to win voters from both the Tory right, who wanted a “full fat” crackdown on the ECHR, and moderate MPs in the “One Nation” group who have warned they cannot back any legislation that flouts human rights law.
The PM is reportedly considering making the vital showdown vote on the legislation next week – with the crucial first vote now confirmed for Tuesday – a confidence issue in the government.
Convention dictates that the PM would either resign or dissolving parliament and call an election if he loses such a vote. However, No 10 sources have played down the idea that will be treated as a confidence vote.
Sunak was joined by his home secretary James Cleverly at the press conference (PA)
Mr Sunak is reportedly worried by the number of no confidence letters being submitted – amid warnings he could soon face a leadership challenge from the right.
Cabinet minister Chris Heaton-Harris played down the chances of Mr Sunak facing a vote on his leadership, should around 55 letters be submitted to the 1922 committee, as “very unlikely”. The Northern Ireland secretary told LBC: “I’d say vanishingly small.”
The new Sunak bill includes provisions to disapply relevant parts of the Human Rights Act so they cannot be factored into court decisions on deportation cases – but does not try to disapply the ECHR.
However, the legislation will ensure UK ministers “retain the decision on whether or not to comply” with interim orders from the European Court of Human Rights – the Strasbourg body that oversees the ECHR.
Mr Sunak warned judges at the Strasbourg court that he would do “what is necessary” to get flights airborne if they did try to intervene.
Dozens of hardliners – including members of the 35-strong New Conservatives, the Common Sense Group and the European Research Group – have convened a “star chamber” to help decide if they could vote for the new bill.
Senior Tory moderate Damian Green, chair of the One Nation group – which boasts support from around 100 MPs – has warned Mr Sunak that he “should think twice before overriding both the ECHR and HRA”.
A spokesman for the One Nation group said it welcomed the government’s decision to stick with “international commitments”, and taking legal advice on whether to support the bill.
Despite the cautious backing of centrists, senior moderate Tobias Ellwood said he would not support the Rwanda bill if there is “any prospect” of breaking international laws. “We uphold international law. We don’t break it,” he told Times Radio. Mr Ellwood said the row over Rwanda was “ripping our party in half”.
Mr Sunak was joined by home secretary James Cleverly and two new immigration ministers at his press conference, having split ministerial responsibility for legal and illegal migration as he replaced Mr Jenrick.
Michael Tomlinson will be the illegal migration minister, while right-wing Brexiteer Tom Pursglove will be the minister for legal migration.
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