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Sunak’s Leadership on the Line in Rwanda Bill Showdown


Rishi Sunak stands on the edge of a political precipice. The Prime Minister faces a critical test this week that could determine his tenuous grip on power. Sunak has staked his premiership on a controversial immigration Rwanda bill to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. But the legislation has fractured Conservatives, with both hardliners and moderates rebelling.

With the opposition Labour Party set to defeat the bill in Parliament, Sunak desperately tries to rally his divided Tories. If he fails, Sunak risks a swift downfall – either through resignation, leadership challenge, or a snap election gamble.

The Rwanda gambit exemplifies Sunak’s broader struggles to govern. Barely a year into his premiership, Sunak lacks authority and allies. 

Now, Sunak clings to the cliff’s edge. The Rwanda bill vote will decide whether he continues his perilous balancing act or plummets from power. Down one path lies potential political revival, down the other, an end to his turbulent tenure.

Rishi Sunak faces his biggest test yet as British Prime Minister this week, with the fate of his leadership potentially hinged on a controversial immigration bill.

The legislation aims to send some asylum seekers arriving in the UK to Rwanda for processing, a divisive policy that has fractured Sunak’s Conservatives. After the UK Supreme Court deemed the Rwanda deportation plan unlawful last month, Sunak introduced new legislation to override that ruling.

But convincing his party to back the bill will prove an immense challenge. Hardline Conservatives want it toughened up further, while moderates have human rights concerns. With only a small rebellion needed to defeat the bill in Parliament this week, Sunak’s future as Prime Minister hangs in the balance.

To explain the bill further, Sunak has made stopping the boats carrying migrants across the English Channel one of his top priorities. Nearly 30,000 asylum seekers arrived in Britain by small boats last year alone. While the majority enter legally, these irregular crossings provide vivid imagery of the government’s failure to secure borders.

To deter the dangerous journeys, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson struck a deal with Rwanda in April of 2022. 

Under the deal, anyone arriving in Britain illegally after January 1, 2022 could face deportation to Rwanda, located over 4,000 miles away in East Africa.

However, the policy immediately faced legal troubles. The first scheduled deportation flight in June 2022 was halted by a last-minute injunction from the European Court of Human Rights. 

After becoming Prime Minister in October, Sunak vowed to press ahead nonetheless.Then last month, the UK Supreme Court unanimously ruled the Rwanda scheme unlawful. 

The court determined Rwanda was not a safe third country and migrants faced mistreatment risks if sent back to their home countries from there. Despite no actual deportations occurring yet, Britain has already paid Rwanda £240 million under the agreement.

Undeterred, Sunak introduced the new Safety of Rwanda Bill to circumvent the courts. It would specifically deem Rwanda safe under British law, allowing deportation flights to proceed. The bill immediately divided Sunak’s Conservatives.

Hardliners argued it doesn’t go far enough to ensure deportations. They want to prevent human rights appeals against removal to Rwanda. But moderate Tories warned this could breach basic principles of British justice.

Sunak hosted some rebellious MPs for breakfast Tuesday, pleading for their support. But convincing his fractured party to back the divisive bill was always a tall order. With Labour opposing it, only a small Tory rebellion could sink the legislation.

So what if the bill fails?

Most observers consider a Commons defeat on the bill’s Second Reading tonight the most likely outcome. This would profoundly damage Sunak’s premiership. Losing his first major vote would cripple his authority and ability to govern.

Sunak denies tonight’s vote is an effective confidence measure in his leadership. But senior Conservatives insist a defeat would be terminal for the struggling Prime Minister.

Various dramatic scenarios could then unfold:

First, Sunak may choose to resign immediately, sparking a new Tory leadership contest.

Second, He could face a direct leadership challenge if MPs force a vote of no confidence. And finally, Sunak could look to renew his mandate by calling a general election.

Any of these outcomes would severely destabilize the Conservatives after months of infighting. Let’s examine the implications of each in more detail:

Scenario 1: Sunak Resigns

If the Rwanda bill fails, Sunak could decide his credibility is too damaged to continue and step down voluntarily.

This would trigger the second Conservative Party leadership election in just four months. Sunak initially won power after Liz Truss’ resignation.

His potential successors would likely come from the right-wing of the party. Home Secretary Suella Braverman has long harbored leadership ambitions. She resigned in October partly over immigration policy disputes with Truss.

Other contenders could include Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt, and former leadership hopeful Penny Mordaunt.

But another messy leadership contest risks worsening the Conservatives’ dire poll ratings. The public may see further infighting and disarray as evidence the party is unfit to govern. This makes a general election more probable.

Scenario 2: Sunak Faces Leadership Challenge

Rather than resigning, Sunak could try to cling on even if the Rwanda bill fails. But furious MPs could then initiate a confidence vote to oust him.

Sunak would have little hope of surviving a confidence vote after such an early humiliation. No Prime Minister could recover authority after losing a key bill and subsequent leadership challenge. Sunak would almost certainly be forced out or quit.

This would again kick off a leadership race. But installing another unelected Prime Minister so soon after Sunak would spark public outrage. The backlash would likely compel the new leader to call snap elections straight away.

Scenario 3: Sunak Might re-introduce the bill later

If the bill is defeated, Sunak could wait and try to build more support within his party before proposing it again. He may hope to convince Tory rebels over time.

He could bide his time and try to change minds within his party. Sunak may offer concessions or compromises to sway Tory rebels who voted the bill down. He could hold extensive consultations and address concerns. 

However, the core divisions on immigration policy run deep in the Conservatives. Moderates fundamentally oppose offshore detention plans. These rifts may be too wide for Sunak to bridge.

Sunak would need to remain party leader long enough to build support. But he’ll face intense pressure to resign or call elections if the bill fails. 

Surviving confidence votes and staving off leadership challenges could buy Sunak time. Yet his credibility may be too damaged to unify the Tories again.

These scenarios all assume Sunak loses this week’s vote. But even if the Rwanda bill somehow squeezes through, the Prime Minister’s troubles are far from over.

The legislation would still have to clear extensive debate and scrutiny in Parliament, risking damaging amendments from rebels. And approval is not guaranteed in the House of Lords, where the unelected upper chamber could reject or stall the bill’s passage. 

Moreover, time is limited with elections on the horizon – the Labour Party has already vowed to scrap the policy if it takes power, meaning Sunak’s deportation plan could be short-lived. 

The bitter divisions over the Rwanda bill epitomize the difficulties Sunak has faced since entering Number 10. He inherited a party plagued by infighting that has rendered effective governance near impossible.

Sunak first became Prime Minister after Truss’ economic agenda triggered market chaos. His priority was steadying the economy.

But the Conservative’s small majority left Sunak reliant on fractious MPs to pass budgets and laws. Battles over issues like planning reforms exposed the deep rifts within his party.

As polls swing towards Labour, Tory discipline has only deteriorated. The Rwanda bill has become a flashpoint pitting factions against each other.

The Rwanda deportation bill has emerged as a decisive moment in Sunak’s turbulent first months as Prime Minister. With his party fractured and the public disillusioned, Sunak already faces a perilous road holding together Britain’s faltering government.

A heavy defeat could prove the blow that forces Sunak from office sooner than expected. Whether through resignation, challenge, or election call, Sunak’s chances of clinging on much longer appear doubtful if the bill fails.

But even if Sunak emerges from the vote victorious, it may prove a temporary victory. The divisions laid bare within Conservative ranks will not heal overnight. 

After months of disarray, the coming days will be definitive for Sunak’s prospects of reviving Conservative fortunes before an election. Yet as challenges mount, Sunak may find the only real question is whether his party unravels rapidly or slowly under his divided leadership.

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