UK Politics

UK Politics: Will Rwanda vote destabilise Rishi Sunak?

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and former Home Secretary Suella Braverman
Bitter Tory divisions are being laid bare by the Rwanda bill

As Tory divisions over Rwanda spike again, so could Betfair's politics markets regarding Rishi Sunak's future. Paul Krishnamurty tries to make sense of a chaotic situation...

  • Red Wall MPs resign ahead of key vote

  • Defeat might finish Sunak

  • Is there a snap election ploy?

Another day of parliamentary chaos beckons today as MPs vote on the controversial Rwanda legislation. Yesterday the government suffered the resignations of two deputy chairs, including prominent GB News host Lee Anderson, plus a PPS. Is this the start of a process that will destabilise, or even remove Rishi Sunak as Prime Minister?

Sunak exit betting could spike today

We saw Betfair markets around Sunak's immediate future spike ahead of the second reading of this bill before Christmas, only for speculation to be dampened by a smaller rebellion from Tory backbenchers than had been hyped. That may have been premature and due to misunderstanding the process.

The second reading concerns the principle of the legislation, which therefore offers room for sceptics to support it. Bills very rarely go down at this stage. Whereas before the third and final reading, amendments can be put forward and divisions laid bare. As expected, a series of amendments were put forward yesterday, sparking the resignations.

Tory MPs hoping to pressure the government into concessions that would harden the legislation were ultimately dissatisfied and, under orders to vote with the government, the rebels felt compelled to resign.

A notable aspect of the joint resignation letter from Anderson and Brendan Clarke-Smith was their statement of 100% support for Sunak and the government - suggesting this isn't a precursor to forcing a confidence vote.

Nevertheless, today's vote is now widely seen as a defacto confidence vote, because defeat would kill the flagship legislation upon which Sunak has staked so much.

Will rebel MPs defeat the bill?

Sixty Tory MPs voted against the government on two amendments, tabled by veteran Eurosceptic Bill Cash and former immigration minister Robert Jenrick. The final vote is this evening and, assuming all opposition MPs vote against as expected, the government can afford only 28 rebels to avoid that catastrophic defeat.

So what happens next and what are the betting implications? It is not clear that the rebels will turn out in the same numbers. Westminster journalists are reporting 12-20, although they are frequently wrong about such matters.

But if enough do vote against to defeat the bill, Sunak's leadership will be plunged into a possibly terminal crisis. There is every chance that a confidence vote will be triggered.

The betting signals do not currently project that happening. Yes to a Confidence Vote before the Next Election is rated 23% only likely and available to lay at odds of 1.351/3 on the exchange. Sunak remains a 1.21/5 (83%) chance to remain Conservative Leader at the Next Election.

If those signals are right and the bill passes the Commons, it will almost certainly be held up in the Lords or run into legal delays. Sunak's hopes of having planes trafficking migrants to Rwanda in the air before the election are frankly, for the birds, and that is before considering that no airline is yet prepared to comply.

Could there be a snap election?

Given that this is primarily about optics, it has crossed my mind that this process could all be manufactured political theatre. It seems inconceivable that Sunak genuinely believes these planes will take off and hand him a political victory.

Were the above sequence to play out, Sunak might then call a snap election, themed around a fight with unelected Lords and judges over deporting illegal migrants. The Brexit standoff, reborn. It might precipitate promising a referendum on leaving the ECHR in the manifesto.

Whether or not that is Sunak's plan, it is surely the intended direction of travel for the rebels and would-be leadership candidates Jenrick and Suella Braverman.

A stand-off to re-unite the Right?

Such an election around a "Who Governs" narrative, will remind political historians of another Tory leader at the 1974 election, similarly set against government paralysis. Ted Heath lost, but there is a decent argument that such tactics would re-unite the Tories temporarily, outflank nascent right-wing rivals ReformUK, and reduce the scale of defeat projected by current polls.

Recently, Sunak said he was working on the assumption of an autumn election. His words moved the Election Date market dramatically, with Oct-Dec now trading at just 1.374/11, Jan-Mar drifting right out to 110.0109/1 and Apr-Jun to 6.05/1. But there was enough wriggle-room in Sunak's words to change course for this eventuality.

This year's politics may well be dominated by this stalemate, and we end up with that election narrative in the autumn, but I would run a mile from backing 1.374/11 in such unpredictable circumstances.

Alternatively, the government loses this vote tomorrow. Sunak survives the confidence vote, as MPs do not want the chaos of another leadership contest. But his authority is in tatters. Another possibility is that Sunak resigns in frustration.

Swerve short-odds bets

I cannot confidently predict the outcome. Those exit markets, and Next Prime Minister, could very well become exciting over the next few days. Before Christmas, I put up a couple of huge-priced speculative bets on Michael Gove and David Cameron to succeed Sunak. So it was nice to see Nadine Dorries doing all she can to ramp up the Cameron speculation last night.

Betting-wise, the one conclusion I would draw is taking any of these short-odds options is bad strategy. It isn't asking much for at least one short odds-on chance to be turned over.

For all to land would mean Sunak hanging on for months against this grim backdrop. Catastrophic polls, by-election defeats, terrible local elections wiping out the activist base, more division and scandal. Farage, Reform and GB News flamethrowers sniping over immigration.

Or to put it plainly, an electoral suicide mission.

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