Rishi Sunak press conference: PM takes his biggest risk on Rwanda and it could make or break his premiership

Politics Editor Ralph Blackburn watched on as Rishi Sunak took the biggest gamble of his time in power over the Rwanda plan.
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Watching Rishi Sunak deliver another speech on Rwanda, from the small press conference room in No9 Downing Street, you could feel the pressure was getting to him.

Sunak was broadsided by a dramatic resignation from now former Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick, who said it is a “triumph of hope over experience” and argued the bill actually does not go far enough in ignoring human rights treaties.

I was sitting in the House of Commons press gallery as Cleverly announced the proposed legislation, and Jenrick was conspicuously absent. Phones of MPs from all parties were pinging with messages, and eventually the Home Secretary had to admit that his Immigration Minister had quit.

This has sparked fears that when the bill is voted on next week Sunak may actually lose, if right-wing Tory MPs, such as Suella Braveman and Jenrick, vote against the government along with the opposition parties. It would, in effect, be a confidence vote in the Prime Minister, and could leave Sunak impotent just like Theresa May was at the end of premiership. Fancy a fourth Tory PM in 18 months anyone?

Rishi Sunak has taken the biggest risk of his premiership on Rwanda. Credit: GettyRishi Sunak has taken the biggest risk of his premiership on Rwanda. Credit: Getty
Rishi Sunak has taken the biggest risk of his premiership on Rwanda. Credit: Getty

So that was the context for Sunak’s surprise press conference this morning, where he made his case to Tory MPs. He said: “Today’s bill … ends the merry-go-round of legal challenges that have blocked our policy for too long. We simply cannot have a situation where our ability to control our borders … is held up in endless litigation in our courts.”

He added proudly: “This bill blocks every single reason that has ever been used to prevent flights to Rwanda from taking off. The only extremely narrow exception will be if you can prove with credible and compelling evidence that you specifically have a real and imminent risk of serious and irreversible harm.”

Sunak was asked by reporters if this was a confidence vote - to which he said no - and whether he would call an election if he lost. He responded by saying that these questions weren’t for him, but for the Labour party.

He said: “The question is not for me, I’ve got a plan … the question is for everyone else, and crucially the Labour Party, what’s there plan, are they going to vote for this legislation because if they really want to stop the boats, if they really get the values of the British people, they should be fully backing it.”

This is Sunak’s hail Mary, the prestige at the end of his trick - force Labour to back his plan so the public don’t think Sir Keir Starmer is weak on migration. The problem is there’s no way the opposition would miss the chance to bring down the government. Starmer wants an election as soon as possible, and this may be the quickest way.

It looks slightly delusional to ignore potential backbench rebellions. You can tell the way the wind is blowing by the questions from the right-wing media. GB News said migrants were “laughing” at the Prime Minister, the Daily Mail said that Jenrick was right saying the bill was “hope over experience” and the Sun asked if no flights take off whether the public “should put their faith in someone else”?

The Rwanda plan has become a millstone around Sunak’s neck, a bind of his own making. It wasn’t even his plan, charities question whether it will actually work and it’s looking increasingly unlikely any planes will ever take off. This is all with an outlay of £140 million plus. Yet Sunak has bet the house on the Rwanda plan, making (or breaking) his whole premiership around stopping the boats, despite it being something largely out of his control. 

It would be fairly apt that after the chaos under Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, the 13-plus years of Tory rule comes crashing down with internecine warfare. Sunak’s played his hand, we await to see if anyone trumps it.

Ralph Blackburn is NationalWorld’s politics editor based in Westminster, where he gets special access to Parliament, MPs and government briefings. If you liked this article you can follow Ralph on X (Twitter) here and sign up to his free weekly newsletter Politics Uncovered, which brings you the latest analysis and gossip from Westminster every Sunday morning.

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