Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

Week-in-Review: Rishi Sunak’s New Spartans will rise (and fall) again

Misunderstood and shunned, for those eleven Conservative MPs who voted “No” to Rishi Sunak’s flagship Rwanda Bill last week, defeat is a matter of perspective — and victory a matter of time.  

Small in number but strong in will, Conservative MPs Suella Braverman, Robert Jenrick, Sir Simon Clarke, Danny Kruger, Miriam Cates, Sir Bill Cash, David Jones, Mark Francois, Dame Andrea Jenkyns and James Duddridge marched proudly into the commons’ “No” lobby on Wednesday evening to signal their deeply felt opposition to the Safety of Rwanda Bill. (That’s 2.2 rebels per “family” — to extend the relevant mafiosi metaphor).

They would have been joined by former deputy party chair Lee Anderson had Labour MPs’ “giggling” not so riled the Red Wall Rottweiler — but their message was nonetheless clear: Rishi Sunak’s Rwanda Bill will not work, cannot work and the government is risking electoral armageddon in insisting it might. 

Rebellion was not their preferred option, of course. In fact, the so-called “New Spartans” had spent much of the previous 48 hours in the commons “yes” lobby, alongside a slew of supportive colleagues, urging on the government to “toughen up” the legislation. Robert Jenrick, the mild-mannered lawyer turned modern-day Leonidas, led the charge at the bill’s committee stage — with as many as 60 Conservative MPs rallying in support. 

That only 11 of those 60 followed the logic of their committee stage rebellion through to its natural conclusion seems to me highly revealing. After all, it illustrates that the vast majority of Sunak’s committee stage rebels were not willing to countenance the collapse of his government that might have then resulted. 

But, crucially, a small subsection were. 

And how this principled “last stand” defeat was celebrated. David Campbell-Bannerman, the leader of the vehemently anti-Sunak Conservative Democratic Organisation, identified the remaining recalcitrants as the “New Spartans”. “At least we have 11 true, principled and courageous Tories in the party”, he consoled himself. 

The “New Spartan” name, as Campbell-Bannerman recognised, has a clear historical pedigree: first, as a reference to 480 BC when 300 Spartan warriors fought to the death against a vast Persian Army in battle of Thermopylae in one of history’s most famous last stands; and, latterly, to 2019 AD when 28 Conservative MPs voted against then-prime minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal on all three “meaningful votes”, essentially securing its defeat and her demise. 

Back in March 2019, the “Spartans” of Brexit yore briefed their chosen name to Paul Goodman of Conservative Home — from where it was quickly seized upon by the rest of the media. This week, Goodman followed Campbell-Bannerman in giving his verdict on the collective he termed “Spartans Two”. His account, a rather less hagiographic portrait than the CDO chief’s, nonetheless underlines the role Sunak’s Rwanda rebels seem destined to play in Conservative folklore. 

But it is also a role said “New Spartans” always wanted to play. Ahead of the Rwanda Bill’s committee stage this week, Sir John Hayes (leader of the Common Sense Group), Danny Kruger and Mark Francois wrote glowingly in the Telegraph of “The Brexit ‘Spartans’ who held firm set off a chain of events that saw Brexit delivered and a historic Conservative election victory”. They would do the same, was the unmissable message: “Standing firm is no more or less than our duty”. 

Robert Jenrick says PM’s Rwanda bill ‘doesn’t work’ as he proposes amendments

Still, the context the “New Spartans” find themselves in today is necessarily divorced from that of their 2019 AD and 480 BC counterparts. For while Leonidas saved his city and rebel leader Steve Baker defeated the then-PM’s withdrawal agreement deal, Rishi Sunak (a latter say Xerxes I or Theresa May), has ostensibly triumphed over the Rwanda Bill — in the commons at least. 

Speaking at a press conference on Thursday morning, Sunak began with the optimistic claim that “the Conservative Party has come together” over the Safety of Rwanda Bill. (A Unity of the Tories Bill would right any remaining doubters). But, in some crucial senses, the prime minister was right — because despite the consistently significant rebellions in favour of hostile amendments at the bill’s committee stage, a vast swathe of the Conservative Parliamentary Party did fall into line at third reading. Sunak had called his rebels’ bluff; the Spartans had been crushed and their city, seemingly, sacked. 

But to call this a “victory” for the prime minister would be to misunderstand the logic of his New Spartan flank. In opposition, in condemnation from Britain’s columnist class, in isolation, in honourable, principled defeat, lies virtue — and the seeds of victory to come. 

The last stand of the 11

Step back, and there is little doubt that the events of this week could be reasonably construed as a proxy for a leadership challenge. 

On Monday, the Telegraph published the details of the poll which showed that the Conservative Party would be reduced to a mere 169 seats on current performance. The survey, conducted by a group called “Conservative Britain Alliance” in tandem with Sunak-sceptic peer and Telegraph columnist Lord Frost, was clearly designed to set the scene for the Rwanda Bill debate. 

Indeed, in a Telegraph article before Christmas, Lord Frost had counselled his Conservative counterparts in the commons to not “resign themselves to the coming electoral car crash”. He declared 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”. 

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

With this new poll in the Telegraph, Frost had his perfect “electoral car crash”, doomsday scenario. Thus, the former chief Brexit negotiator had presented the Rwanda maximalist brigade with some new ammunition at a crucial stage. Now, Frost’s subtext followed, is the time for MPs to leverage his poll and pursue the “better path” — his chosen euphemism for regicide.

Moreover, Kruger, Francois and Hayes’ attempt to style themselves as the “Brexit Spartans” reborn is also arguably revealing of hidden regicidal intentions. For while their selective reading of Brexit history argues the “Spartans” secured the 2019 “Conservative election victory”, they leave out a crucial step: the ousting of Theresa May. 

In spite of this, of course, Frost’s well-timed and well-placed poll did not have the desired effect on Conservative MPs. But in lieu of victory, there lies potentially something far stronger and politically potent in the long term: a narrative of betrayal. 

Of the eleven rebels who voted against the Rwanda Bill at third reading, five are spoken of as potential leadership challengers: they are former home secretary Suella Braverman, former immigration minister Robert Jenrick, the New Conservatives’ Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates, and former cabinet mainstay Sir Simon Clarke. 

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I think Jenrick’s role, here, is worth treating in some detail. The deference with which the former immigration minister was treated through the Rwanda Bill’s committee stage and third reading by his fellow rebels was remarkable. Danny Kruger thanked him for his “important work”; Sir Simon Clarke praised Jenrick for his “considerable political and personal courage”; New Conservative and committee stage rebel Tom Hunt argued Jenrick “knows [the Rwanda plan] issue better than anyone else”.

Thus, Jenrick, together with his new acolytes, calculate that he will soon be proved right on his own terms — and perhaps he will be. In his committee stage contribution, he argued that the unamended Rwanda Bill would, at best, secure a few “symbolic” flights for the prime minister ahead of an election. This statement, which overtly accepted Labour’s main criticism of the deportation scheme, shows the former immigration minister is guided not by mere short-term electoral goals — but ostensibly by his genuine fidelity to the small boats-stopping cause. 

That said, whether Jenrick’s proposed solutions would turn the Rwanda plan from gimmick into serious, workable policy is entirely moot. But it is also not really the point. The former immigration minister is setting up an “I told you so” windfall following the next election, from which will flow the adoration of Conservative Party members and “five families”-affiliated MPs. Campbell-Bannerman’s CDO will surely campaign on their behalf.

PMQs verdict: Keir Starmer can’t lose as long as Rwanda plan looms

In this way, any “New Spartans’” triumph cannot be calculated by mere commons arithmetic, but by their narrative consistency. They intend to outbid both Rishi Sunak in the short term, and leadership competitors in the long term, on what it means to be an authentic Conservative. The level of noise they made over the Rwanda Bill, they will conclude moreover, means no non-“Spartan” can reasonably say they weren’t warned. 

So, despite the ostensible unity won for the government at the Rwanda Bill’s third reading, the prime minister can be certain his “New Spartans” will be back. Simply put, by weaponising defeat as the epitome of purity, the Spartans have a platform on which to mount future battles and challenges — be they over the Rwanda Bill or some other totemic issue. 

Indeed, for a modern-day “Spartan”, unlike their classical precursors, there will always be another final “last stand”. The so-called “New” Spartans Suella Braverman, Sir Bill Cash, David Jones, Mark Francois, Dame Andrea Jenkyns and James Duddridge — who also rebelled on all three occasions against Theresa May — are living proof. 

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

But there is a sense that, with this Rwanda rebellion, Rishi Sunak’s awkward squad is looking over and beyond him. His commons majority is so strong that parliamentary defeats remain fundamentally unlikely — the “New Spartans” may simply have to wait for the electorate to succeed where they continue to fail. 

In the meantime, “last stands” will come thick and fast. In fact, i news reports Jenricks is already limbering up for a battle over legal migration. His resignation as immigration minister in December, remember, flowed not only from his intra-government lobbying over Rwanda “plan B”, but also over his shunned, hardline “five-point plan” for legal migration.  

In such further fights, the New Spartans will likely rise and fall and rise again — with their tried and tested strategies, borrowed from the Brexit playbook, quivering the media at every turn. 

In the end, political battle could follow political battle until Lord Frost’s MRP poll manifests with raw, brutal rhapsody later this year. What comes next will reveal whether Jenrick and co’s rebel posturing was worth it after all.

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

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