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Good morning. A bruising few days for the government ends with the majority of Conservative MPs asking questions about some of their colleagues, many of them inappropriate to repeat in this family-friendly email. But the more PG-friendly questions matter for how the Conservative party will approach the year. Some more thoughts on what those questions are and what they tell us below.

Inside Politics is edited by Georgina Quach. Read the previous edition of the newsletter here. Please send gossip, thoughts and feedback to insidepolitics@ft.com

You change your mind, like an ERGer changes votes

As one Tory MP put it to me yesterday, the past three days of rebellion and resignation over amendments to the Rwanda bill have been, above all, a test of the Conservative party’s strategic intelligence. Sixty-four of them failed, with 63 MPs having voted against the government in the revolt that ultimately melted away at the bill’s third reading last night. But the big problem, in this person’s mind at least, was that the 64th failure is leading the party.

Now, this MP is one of Rishi Sunak’s longtime critics, but nonetheless, they drew attention to a question that the past three bruising days have brought back to the fore:

Just how bad are Rishi Sunak’s political instincts?

The government started 2024 with a public display of disunity and disarray, devoting much of the past week to talking about a policy area where they trail Labour and where a majority of voters do not think their mooted solutions will work. The big reason for this comes down to decisions Sunak made last year.

He chose to try to fix the government’s Rwanda scheme by legislating to disregard parts of the UK’s human rights framework while giving individuals the right to bring some claims against it. This has annoyed liberals and people concerned about the rule of law. Because it represents a real and perhaps insurmountable barrier to getting the Rwanda scheme working, it also provoked a rebellion on his party’s right.

There were alternatives. It is an open secret that James Cleverly, Sunak’s newish home secretary, wanted to take a different approach, by emphasising government initiatives that are actually working (such as the deal with Albania to return people seeking to come to the UK back to that country) and talking less about the Rwanda scheme. As George Parker, Lucy Fisher and Anna Gross note in their write-up on where these votes have left Rishi Sunak:

Allies of James Cleverly, the home secretary who previously described the Rwanda policy as “batshit”, wonder why the government is putting such a spotlight on a part of its migration strategy that is not working.

Certainly this has not been a good week for Sunak’s political judgments or anything like it. But given how Conservative rebels have behaved, it is hard to see that the approach of shifting the spotlight on the Albania deal rather than the Rwanda scheme would not have come with costs of its own.

The big lesson of this week is that the party is badly divided and many of its MPs do not wish for that division to be repaired any time soon.

Yes, the majority of Tory MPs still think (rightly) that changing leader has so many risks and essentially no upsides. The number of MPs who think that recent events have been well-handled by any of the party’s power brokers is not large but there is still no serious prospect that Sunak will be removed as leader this side of an election defeat.

But there is a minority that does want a leadership change. There is another minority that supports Sunak but does not realise that it is political insanity to undermine the calls of a leader you don’t want to change when you are at most 12 months away from an election.

Speaking of, another question worth noting is this:

What does this mean for James Cleverly’s hopes in the next Tory leadership election?

A question with a short answer this one: it’s not helpful! The problem for Conservative moderates is that Cleverly represents their best hope of recovering in opposition — he is more likely to defeat a candidate from the right than any of their other possible candidates. But the small boats issue has undermined every Conservative home secretary to take the role since Theresa May (with the partial exception of Suella Braverman) and that doesn’t look like it will change. Another, similar question:

What does this mean for Robert Jenrick, Suella Braverman, et al?

Handily this has the same answer: it’s not good either! Back to our team’s piece:

Asked about the revolt by 60 Conservative MPs, who defied Sunak by trying to toughen it up, one former cabinet minister pulled an imaginary pistol from his pocket and took aim at his two feet.

Even among MPs who are ideologically closer to the Jenrick-Braverman approach to tackling the small boats issue, there are significant numbers who think that voting against the prime minister this week shows poor judgment, because there was never any prospect of changing the policy — all it did was damage the party’s standing.

It’s hard to predict exactly how the next Conservative leadership election will shape out because we don’t know what the electorate will be. Even if the Tory party does find a way to win, many people who are Conservative MPs now won’t be after the next election. But what we can say is that it is not a good time to be associated with the Rwanda scheme, whether because you are the home secretary Cleverly or one of its loudest opponents. That, of course, rebounds to the advantage of the business secretary Kemi Badenoch.

Now try this

The Holdovers, a delightful, bittersweet film set in a 1970s New England private school, is out on general release in the UK this weekend. Go see it if you can.

Top stories today

Tory rebels seek to block international law to push through Rwanda scheme © Banx

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