Congratulations to Rishi Sunak, who last night won what is surely the most derisory ‘victory’ in modern British politics, as his Rwanda bill crawls through to a third reading in the new year.
It is no small task to count the ways in which Sunak’s ‘win’ was worse than any defeats most of us are likely to encounter, but let us begin. The place to start is that there is nothing impressive in Sunak chasing off a rebellion for a second reading in parliament.
These votes are usually technicalities, even on the most contentious of bills – all parliament is doing at this stage is agreeing that the bill can continue to be considered, with MPs scrutinising the text and offering amendments at the next stage.
During the entire 20th century, only one government bill was defeated at the second reading. Even at the peak of Brexit dysfunction under Theresa May, she managed to win all of her second reading votes without any media attention or controversy. It should never have been a possibility that Sunak would lose yesterday, and yet we had a day of high dudgeon.
Passing that reading required Sunak and his team to spend an entire day doing what can only be described as eating shit. The PM’s day started with getting whined at over breakfast by people who think describing themselves as “five families” with a “star chamber” makes themselves sound serious and credible.
Despite that, and a day full of similar approaches, Sunak failed to win over most of those groups. But curiously, six former or suspended Conservative MPs – several of whom have been staying away from parliament while they are subject to ongoing investigations – all turned up to the House to vote with the government. Speculation as to why they decided to show up has, very naturally, followed.
Sunak is now left trying to pass a bill that is already at the outer extreme that one group of his MPs say they will vote for. But to get support from the Tory right, he has had to promise that it will be heavily amended to suit their wishes.
A bill that can satisfy both factions simply isn’t possible – the version voted through today was No. 10’s best effort to do that, and it’s caused a row that’s led the headlines all week. There is almost certainly no version of this bill that will be compatible with the UK staying in the European Convention on Human Rights and that will also get the votes of his right flank.
The pain of the bill’s failure, therefore, will now be drawn out over the entire Christmas recess and beyond it – likely six weeks or so of misery before it almost certainly fails. Should it somehow pass the Commons, the bill is almost certainly dead on arrival at the Lords. If it passed the Lords, then the lie of Sunak’s statement yesterday will become real: this bill is not immune to challenge by either UK or international courts.
Sunak, in other words, is having to spend all of his time, energy and political capital on a bill that is doomed in every forum it could possibly be doomed, and that’s not even the grimmest bit of it. Imagine you were going to have to devote everything to passing one new law: would you really want it to be a law that would send a few hundred desperate people across the world to fend for themselves in a dictatorship?
The prime minister has staked his premiership on a viciously cruel bill, which wouldn’t solve any problems even if it passed unopposed, and which was always going to be effectively opposed – a moronic Catch-22 situation entirely of his own design.
Rishi Sunak’s ‘win’ yesterday has set him up for weeks of losing, time and again, in every way it’s possible to lose. He might as well enjoy that hollow victory while he can, though – this is likely as good as it’s going to get from hereon out.