Sunak’s Rwanda Showdown to Define Battle for Tory Party’s Future

(Bloomberg) -- An excoriating letter from Suella Braverman, the home secretary fired in dramatic fashion Monday, underscored the fury facing British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak among right-wing Tories hours before the Supreme Court rules on whether the government can legally deport asylum seekers to Rwanda.

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Braverman accused Sunak of betraying the public and breaking a promise he made to her to clamp down on immigration, in a missive likely to rank as one of the most scathing ever sent by an outgoing minister. It raises the stakes for the court ruling because if he loses, Sunak will struggle to show he can deliver on a pledge that matters most to the rebellious right of his Conservative Party: stopping the arrival of asylum seekers on small boats from France.

Read more: Fired Braverman Accuses UK’s Sunak of Betrayal, Broken Vows

“Uncertain, weak, and lacking in the qualities of leadership that this country needs,” was how Braverman summarized Sunak’s premiership. In a clear warning ahead of the court’s verdict on Wednesday, she accused Sunak of reneging on a “deal” they struck as she supported his unlikely bid for the Tory leadership just over a year ago, to bypass the European Convention of Human Rights in the government’s approach to tackling immigration.

“Your rejection of this path was not merely a betrayal of our agreement, but a betrayal of your promise to the nation that you would do ‘whatever it takes’ to stop the boats,” she said, adding there’s no “credible Plan B” if Sunak loses.

The stream of invective suggests Braverman is intent on scorching the earth for Sunak’s administration ahead of a general election likely next year. Her backing had paved the way for Sunak to enter Downing Street in the most remarkable fashion, weeks after he’d lost a leadership contest to Liz Truss. But in words that cut to the heart of his struggles in office, she said those circumstances meant he had “no personal mandate to be prime minister.”

In response, a spokesman for Sunak said the prime minister “was proud to appoint a strong, united team” in Monday’s Cabinet reshuffle.

The issue is especially sensitive after Sunak’s shock appointment of David Cameron — who is despised among Brexiteers for having backed Remain in the 2016 referendum on Brexit — as foreign secretary, which means right-wing Tories are spoiling for a fight over the direction of the party.

According to people familiar with the matter, Braverman still holds a document drawn up with Sunak outlining the terms of their deal last year, which an ally said she could publish and make further accusations in the coming days.

“The Conservative Party now looks like it is deliberately walking away from the coalition of voters who brought us into power with a large majority in 2019,” the New Conservatives grouping of right-wing Tory MPs led by Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger said in a statement, referring to what the Tories regard as a Brexit-based reset under Boris Johnson.

How that battle is fought depends in the short-term on the Supreme Court. If it rules in favor of the government, Sunak would be able to get to work on Rwanda deportation flights and take the sting out of Braverman’s criticism, allies of the premier said. One said it would put to bed any serious threat to Sunak’s position from the Tory right before the election.

But if the ruling goes the other way, Downing Street faces the prospect of months of party division. Braverman and other right-wing lawmakers are expected to immediately call for Britain to leave the ECHR. The UK Supreme Court case is a separate issue, but is linked in the minds of some Conservative MPs because the Strasbourg court which oversees the ECHR has previously blocked the government’s Rwanda deportation flights.

The Rwanda plan has been controversial ever since Johnson announced it in April 2022. It effectively hinges on the threat of a one-way ticket acting as a deterrent, even as the government has to prove the East African nation is a safe enough to meet its obligations under UK human rights law and the ECHR.

Government officials said the Supreme Court judgment could go either way. In June, the Court of Appeal opposed the policy in a split verdict, with Judge Ian Burnett - then Lord Chief Justice — backing the government but other judges on the panel concluding there were “deficiencies” in the plan including a “real risk” of migrants being re-deported to their home countries.

Still, officials last month expressed their hope of winning the case, citing Judge Burnett’s backing. More recently, though, other officials have tried to downplay their chances. It is unclear whether that is based on briefings from government lawyers or an attempt to manage expectations.

There’s a chance the Supreme Court could give a nuanced verdict, such as judging that the policy remains unlawful until certain conditions are met. And even an outright victory wouldn’t necessarily mean the government can proceed to immediate Rwanda flights. Deportees could still appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, though UK officials believe that with a UK Supreme Court ruling in their favor, the European court would be less likely to intervene.

The nightmare scenario for Sunak is losing. His Cabinet contains divergent views on the ECHR. James Cleverly, Braverman’s replacement in charge of the immigration brief, has said the UK doesn’t have to leave the convention to control its borders. Michael Gove and Kemi Badenoch have said Sunak should keep the option open. Though seen as a moderate Tory, Cameron threatened to leave the ECHR as premier.

The issue is also totemic for more centrist Tories, who say pulling out of the convention would amount to the UK surrendering its standing on the world stage. It also written into the peace treaty which ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland in 1998.

At a Cabinet meeting Tuesday, Cleverly outlined the different judgments the court might make, the prime minister’s spokesman Max Blain told reporters. The government is considering options in the event it loses, including negotiating a new deal with Rwanda that would be ratified by MPs, or adding new nations such as Turkey, Egypt or Iraq to the list of so-called safe countries to which migrants could be deported to, people familiar with the matter said.

Cameron, now the UK’s top diplomat, could be asked to negotiate carve-outs from the ECHR with signatory countries, some Tories think.

Whichever way the court rules on Wednesday, Sunak’s battle with the right of his party is unlikely to be over. Trailing the opposition Labour Party by about 20 points, most Tories see the maneuvering as preparation for a leadership contest after the party is ousted from power. But that doesn’t mean the premier’s critics can’t make his life uncomfortable in the meantime.

“You have manifestly and repeatedly failed to deliver,” Braverman said in her letter to Sunak. “Your resets have failed and we are running out of time.”

--With assistance from Ellen Milligan.

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