Why Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives Have Splintered Into Factions


Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of Britain faces a litany of woes, from a double-digit deficit in the polls to a grinding cost-of-living crisis. But this week, his biggest source of agita comes from the “five families,” a loose coalition of right-wing factions in his Conservative Party that is threatening, yet again, to torpedo his asylum policy.

That these Tory potential rebels would style themselves after the five organized crime families that once ruled over the rackets in New York City attests to both the enduring appeal of mob movies like “The Godfather,” and the lawmakers’ own self-image as political tough guys. It’s also more than a little double-edged: Most of the leaders of the real five families wound up dead or in prison.

Still, the five-families label has stuck, and this week, the rebels are back with a sequel to their noisy campaign last month to force Mr. Sunak to harden legislation that would deport to Rwanda asylum seekers who arrived on the British coast in small boats. As in December, there have been late-night meetings, hastily arranged media briefings, defiant social-media posts, and offers to Mr. Sunak that he can’t refuse.

When it’s all over, with a vote in Parliament likely on Wednesday evening, the prime minister is expected, perhaps narrowly, to keep his Rwanda policy alive.

But the recurring drama reveals a Conservative Party splintered into multiple rivalrous factions, with some lawmakers seemingly more intent on plotting their own futures than on uniting the party for a coming election against the opposition Labour Party.

“Families is a benign term,” said Guto Harri, a former director of communications for Boris Johnson when he was prime minister. “What we’ve seen is the Balkanization of the Conservative Party — and Balkanization leads to constant strife, turbulence and an inability to achieve anything as a united force.”

Last month, Mr. Sunak stared down a mutiny of right-wing lawmakers who said that the legislation was not hard-line enough. Now, the bill faces a second round of votes, which has quickly escalated into another confrontation.

Lee Anderson, a gleefully blunt Midlands lawmaker who was elected in the Conservative landslide led by Mr. Johnson in 2019, voted on Tuesday with dozens of colleagues in favor of amending the legislation to make it less susceptible to being blocked by the courts. That prompted Mr. Anderson, who rose to become deputy party chairman and has his own talk show on the right-wing channel GB News, to quit his party post, alongside Brendan Clarke-Smith, who held a similar position.

“You’ve got a number of talented 2019 Conservatives who are about to lose their seats,” said Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent who has recently advised the Tories on using immigration as an election issue. “They’re trying to position themselves for this postelection defeat,” when, he added, there will be a “civil war over what is British Conservatism.”

Under the Rwanda plan, first proposed by Mr. Johnson in 2022, asylum seekers could be flown to the African nation to have their claims heard there. Even if they were successful, they would not be allowed to settle in Britain, but would instead remain in Rwanda.

An earlier version of the law was struck down by Britain’s Supreme Court, and right-wing lawmakers expect the retooled version to draw further scrutiny from courts in Britain and Europe. They are pushing Mr. Sunak to tighten the language to allow the British government, in essence, to disregard the courts.

The influence of informal groups of lawmakers on the right of the Conservative Party is nothing new. But in recent years, only one hard-line pro-Brexit faction, the European Research Group, has really stood out.

It hounded a former prime minister, Theresa May, helping coordinate opposition to her plans for leaving the European Union, and leaving Parliament in a logjam. Ultimately, she was ousted to make way for Mr. Johnson, whose government adopted the extreme negotiating tactics with Brussels favored by the group’s members.

But Brexit faded as a political issue and, for a time, the size of Mr. Johnson’s majority in Parliament insulated the government from pressure from groups of lawmakers. Several of the European Research Group’s leading figures went into government, including Steve Baker, one of its most skillful advocates.

The group’s current chairman, Mark Francois, is a bombastic Euroskeptic who once attacked a German business leader who had criticized Brexit by invoking World War II. Mr. Francois has said that his father was a veteran who had “never submitted to bullying by any German.” He added, “Neither will his son.”

Last year Mr. Francois revived a committee of right-wing legal experts who called themselves the “Star Chamber,” calling on them to render a verdict on the Rwanda bill. But the group’s influence has dissipated among an array of new groups pressing different, sometimes overlapping agendas.

They include the New Conservatives, led by Danny Kruger, which includes some lawmakers elected in areas of northern England where voters abandoned Labour in favor of the Tories in 2019, and the Northern Research Group, which presses for investment in the north of England.

The Common Sense Group, chaired by John Hayes — an ally of the hard-line former home secretary Suella Braverman — advocates a tough approach to immigration. And despite the implosion of Liz Truss’s government in 2022, her agenda of tax cuts and deregulation is being kept alive by the Conservative Growth Group.

Three of those groups have issued a warning to Mr. Sunak that they will vote against his Rwanda bill unless he offers concessions. They likened themselves to Brexit hard-liners nicknamed the Spartans, who helped to scuttle Mrs. May’s leadership.

Mr. Sunak, who insists the legislation is as tough as it can be, has refused to grant amendments. But some Conservative critics say it is still vulnerable to being ensnared in a thicket of legal and procedural challenges.

“Parliament can assert that Rwanda is a safe country, and indeed pass laws to make it easier to remove immigrants, and the courts here would need to accept that,” said Nick Timothy, a former chief of staff to Mrs. May who is a candidate for a Conservative seat in West Suffolk. “But the European court does not respect the supremacy of Parliament, and therein lies the problem.”

That has led some to call for Britain to leave the European Convention on Human Rights, an international accord it helped draft after World War II. But doing so could ignite a rebellion among more centrist members of the party, and undermine other legal conventions including the Good Friday Agreement, the Northern Ireland peace accord.

With the Tories lagging so far behind Labour, some lawmakers are willing to defy Mr. Sunak because they calculate that, by distancing themselves from an unpopular government, they have a better chance of clinging to support among voters in their own seat.

The disarray has alarmed the leadership of the Conservative Party. On Monday, the party’s election strategist, Isaac Levido, told a meeting of lawmakers that “divided parties fail” and appealed to them to pull together.

“Depressingly, the parliamentary Conservative Party seems to have an insatiable appetite for self-harm,” Mr. Harri said. “One of the most successful election-winning forces in the history of democracy is yet again staring over the precipice and contemplating the abyss below.”

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