Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman didn’t get an easy ride when they visited Essex to unveil their latest plans to tackle anti-social behaviour.
But several hours later in Parliament, the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary faced a different kind of low-level disruption as Tory MPs lined up to demand alterations to the Illegal Migration Bill. And it was the anti-liberal behaviour of Conservative backbenchers that seemed to have most traction.
The sheer number of proposed amendments (89 pages worth) certainly underlines just how big and how divisive this legislation is – inside the Tory party as well as outside it.
Upto 60 backbenchers are threatening to back Sir Bill Cash’s plan to block judges from granting injunctions to stop migrants being deported. Similar numbers are looking for a ban on migrants returning to the UK after being ejected and a reduced timeframe for appeals against deportations.
Some also want to toughen up the bill to ban “Rule 39” orders, a device used by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in emergency cases to halt a proposed action while the law is clarified.
Tory MPs were furious that this legal mechanism was deployed to block flights to Rwanda last year. Campaigners counter that Rule 39 was also used to halt the execution of a member of the Ukrainian armed forces in Russian-controlled Donetsk.
Sir Bill Cash spoke for many potential Tory rebels when he said the bill was “going in the right direction” but wanted further change. And although Braverman’s office denied she had been encouraging amendments in defiance of No 10, there has undeniably been a concerted effort to woo Cash and other rebels.
Of course, hardened rebels can spot whips’ tricks and ministers’ silver-tongued but potentially empty promises at the despatch box during Committee Stage.
If the Government fails to toughen up the legislation by the Report Stage, there may well be trouble ahead. As the PM himself promised to “stop the boats” by the end of this year, some MPs think this bill is doomed unless it is as hard as possible.
The key question is whether Sunak feels strong enough politically to defy some of this pressure, just as he stood up to the refuseniks over the Windsor Framework (which he got through the Commons with an overwhelming majority).
And as with that vote on Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit arrangements, he knows that the rebels can’t actually pass their amendments because they lack the support of Labour, Lib Dems and other parties.
For all Sunak’s attacks on Keir Starmer as a “lefty lawyer”, the Tory party itself has a strong and long tradition of liberal lawyers in its ranks. The diplomatic and political triumph of the Windsor Framework was only possible thanks to such legal brains in both the civil service and among Tory MPs (former Attorney General Robert Buckland certainly rallied support).
However, some One Nation Tories only signed up to the Illegal Migration bill precisely because it didn’t go down the hardline route of effectively signalling withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights.
They also fear that the UK risks breaching not only the European Convention but also wider obligations under the UN’s refugee convention. For these Conservatives, talk of engagement is one thing, but craven capitulation to Cash & co would be another entirely.
In fact, “moderate” Tories are the group that Sunak ought to be more worried about. They do indeed have the numbers, with Labour and other party MPs ready to back them on issues like excluding child migrants from the new regime, and on fast-tracking safe routes to the UK.
That’s why it was all the more strange that Downing Street on Monday tried to kill off hopes of Government concessions on safe routes. “The view remains that in order to do that we first need to get a grip on those crossing illegally so we can plan and make a proper decision about the numbers of people the country, local authorities, councils, GPs, are able to deal with each year,” the PM’s spokesman said.
The most powerful argument for more safe and legal routes (like those for refugees from Ukraine, Afghanistan and Hong Kong) is that the sooner they are created, the sooner the number of small boat crossings can fall. Politically, it would also rob Labour of one of its main attack lines against the Tory approach.
It certainly feels odd that ministers haven’t had the wit to woo his rule-of-law backbenchers more. When Cash said the bill was heading in “the right direction”, some interpret that as “the hard-right direction”.
On the day the bill was launched, One Nation Conservatives emerged from a breakfast meeting with Sunak saying they were pleased something was being done to tackle the people trafficking gangs and to reduce the risk of a tragedy in the Channel.
They were also delighted with the PM’s plan to work much more closely with the French to police the coastline, a policy that may have more practical effect than any amount of tough-talking legislation.
But some worry about the way Italy has normalised the far-right in the form of its Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. International groups have blamed Meloni’s new policy restricting charity rescue boat activity in the Mediterranean for the recent appalling loss of life from capsized vessels. Most of the 72 found dead in a recent tragedy were fleeing Afghanistan.
Sunak needs every weapon he can get his hands on to meet his ambitious pledge to “stop the boats” by the end of this year. If he bows to those who prefer the “stick” of deterrence of draconian measures to the “carrot” of alternative routes to the Channel, it won’t only be the migrants who suffer. His hard-earned reputation as a fixer of problems will too.