©UK Parliament/Maria Unger

Beyond the Rwanda Bill: The Conservative Party faces a bitter, protracted reckoning

A new poll has Conservative MPs quivering: MRP analysis conducted by YouGov for the Telegraph forecasts a Labour majority of 135 at the next election; Keir Starmer is expected to win 385 seats for his party, leaving the Conservatives on a mere 169. That’s just 18 seats better than John Major’s 1997 showing — and from a starting position some distance stronger.

The poll predicts that the Conservatives’ “Red Wall” seats — stolen from Labour in 2019 as an apparent signal of totemic electoral realignment, alongside associated New Conservatives (both big and small ’n’ types) — will be lost entire to the electoral wastelands. Nowhere in yesterday’s Telegraph splash can Rishi Sunak or his MPs locate a crumb of comfort. 

But the poll is revealing less because of what it says about Sunak’s enduring electoral travails — than for who said it, why they said it and, crucially, why now. Even in the absence of some mega MRP survey, attuned politicos will have recognised that the Conservative Party’s prospects for this election year are historically poor. Voters in Selby, Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire have sent the requisite signals; and if by-election results are necessarily caveated and not exhaustive, see also Labour’s over-year-old double-digit opinion poll lead. It would be a mistake to suggest that Conservative MPs are only now, on account of a Telegraph splash, awakening to this brutal reality.

So who is behind the poll? The Telegraph informs us that “The poll was commissioned by a group of Conservative donors called the Conservative Britain Alliance and carried out by YouGov, working with Lord Frost”. Some amateur sleuthing will reveal there is no information online about the “Conservative Britain Alliance” aside from that referencing this present poll. But if their motivations match those of Frost, the former chief Brexit negotiator under Boris Johnson, then our why and why now questions become clearer still.

For some time now, Lord Frost has pursued a stridently anti-Sunak agenda — be that clad in ermine or soaked in the media spotlight. He pens a weekly column for Telegraph, with one pre-Christmas contribution instructing his Conservative counterparts in the commons to not “resign themselves to the coming electoral car crash”. 

Through the looking glass: Inside the topsy-turvy world of the Rwanda Bill

He counselled forebodingly: “If there is anything to be done to get us on a better path and increase our chances of winning, then I believe it must be done”.

The article was published mere days ahead of the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill’s second reading; and, now, with this same legislation returning to the commons today for its much-anticipated committee stage, Frost has his perfect “electoral car crash” scenario. Now, the subtext follows, it’s time to pursue the “better path” — Frost’s chosen euphemism for regicide.

Of course, the Telegraph — Frost’s employer and select paper for his meaty MRP survey — has an agenda too. The newspaper’s motivations here, its reputation as the Tory broadsheet bible besides, can clearly be inferred from its analysis of the results, which has been robustly rebuked by YouGov. The Telegraph’s top-line takeaway was that, without the threat of Richard Tice’s Reform UK, the survey would suggest the existence of a hung parliament. Shift further rightwards still and forestall a historic electoral reckoning, was the message Rishi Sunak was intended to receive.

Unfortunately, the numbers belie the Telegraph‘s chosen conclusion, which appears to have been created by merely adding Reform UK’s projected vote share onto the Conservatives’ own. As I say, the polling organisation YouGov — who actually carried out the research here — have expressed their methodological misgivings. Indeed, recently acquired data details how Reform UK’s vote would in fact smash into a series of voting blocs if Richard Tice’s party was hit by a meteor tomorrow. The Green Party would gain 12 per cent of their vote, for instance. 

Why Reform UK remains a mystery

So, while the headline findings of the MRP poll appear unimpeachable if unoriginal, the analytical dress in which it has been cloaked by the Telegraph, Frost and co, is nakedly political. 

In this sense, the why and the why now of the poll are manifest. Rishi Sunak today faces the most significant 48 hours of his premiership, with a battalion of rebels amassing on his right flank. Lord Frost has never quite led the Conservatives’ anti-Sunak awkward squad — of course, there is no shortage of pretenders to that particular throne — but he has given the Rwanda maximalist brigade some new ammunition at a crucial stage. 

In this way, as it has long been suggested, the Rwanda debate is turning into a proxy for a leadership challenge, with the usual suspects’ posturing now informed by Frost’s doomsday scenario. 

But it is also so much more beyond. For, if the central political conflict/dynamic at play here is between Rishi Sunak and his rebels, it is supplemented by a series of others — ones over which the prime minister exercises still less influence. 

‘Total Tory chaos!’: MPs debate Rwanda bill as Sunak seeks to diffuse backbench revolt

On the one hand, there exists a divide on the “rebel” right over whether the inevitable rejection of their amendments would justify them voting against the bill wholesale. Former home secretary Suella Braverman and onetime cabinet mainstay Sir Simon Clarke seem intent on jettisoning the PM’s Rwanda proposals; but others, including former immigration minister Robert Jenrick, are “considering” their options. 

Meanwhile, Kemi Badenoch has attempted to position herself to the right of Sunak on this issue, with her “private” reservations about the PM’s approach underpinning a very public Times splash. Still, her cabinet position will nonetheless see her back the bill, bar some sensational (very unlikely) resignation. And Priti Patel — another hardline former home secretary languishing in the backbench wilderness — has confirmed she will vote through the bill and reject the right’s mooted amendments. 

On top of this, there is the stand-off between the One Nation group of Conservative MPs and their rebel “five families” counterparts. The moderate caucus, chaired by former deputy prime minister Damian Green, has regularly warned the prime minister about the consequences — political, moral and legal — of No 10 acquiescing to its Rwanda maximalist rebels. 

Week-in-Review: The political inanity of Rishi Sunak vs the ‘five families’

In a piece for the Telegraph on Monday, ever the chosen forum for the Conservative Party’s factional fracas, Green accused the right-wing rebels of “betraying” the party’s traditions. 

Green’s One Nationeers have questions of their own to answer, however. They have long instructed the prime minister that he has already successfully landed on the narrow “strip” which would ensure their support on the bill. But Sunak is currently locked in negotiations with his rebels with a view to strengthening it. A recent piece in The New Statesman sums up the caucus’ dilemma:

The purpose of the caucus is ambiguous. Different members believe it should be for different things. “We’re a caucus, it’s in the word, and not a grouping,” said one MP who almost blushed at the prospect of being more bullish.

But former justice secretary Robert Buckland, who is a key figure in the moderate clique, has taken it upon himself to table an amendment to the Rwanda bill in a bid to ensure it complies with international law. If the Speaker selects the amendment for a commons vote, it could expose a split in the One Nation grouping between those who want to bullishly take the fight to the government on principle and those who prefer to quietly and privately lobby for their cause. 

Ultimately, whether its the interactions between the rebels and the One Nation group, One Nation MPs and other One Nation MPs or ambitious rebels and other ambitious rebels — (for whom the obvious incentive is to appear more outraged and anti-Sunak), the PM is left rudderless, reduced once more to a mere spectator. 

In this way, the Conservative Party faces a bitter, total and protracted reckoning — even if the bill passes its commons third reading tomorrow. 

“Bitter” because the Rwanda dispute is entirely intertwined with a future Conservative leadership contest.

“Total” because it appears to encompass all sections of the party — it is a war of all factions against all factions.

And “protracted” because it will have an afterlife which far outstrips the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill’s commons schedule. The House of Lords will soon send the bill back for MPs with amendments to consider in a move that could again provoke both right and moderate constellations. But even beyond the Lords — as courts await to treat individual claims made under the European Convention of Human Rights — Sunak faces a series of testing battles before Rwanda-bound flights leave British tarmac. 

And, don’t forget: even if Sunak succeeds in depriving his Rwanda rebels of their most obvious cause tomorrow, there will always be another issue for his awkward squad to collectively interpret as existential. First will flow a tricky climbdown, before the rebels cohere around some new Sunak-sceptic source. So while the prime minister might just win this Rwanda battle, the war for control of the Conservative Party will still rage in its wake.

In the end, reckoning could follow reckoning until Lord Frost’s MRP poll manifests with raw, brutal rhapsody later this year.

Year-in-Review: The rejection of Rishi Sunak

Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.

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