Gunfight at the Not-Really-OK Corral

It’s high noon for Sunak’s Conservatives as the bullets start to fly

Artillery Row

At first glance, the chamber of the House of Commons seemed quiet. It was lunchtime on Tuesday afternoon, and the only crowd was in the Scottish corner, where members were trying to introduce the Scotland (Self-Determination) Bill, to allow the Holyrood parliament to call an independence referendum, and presumably to keep calling them until the voters got the result right. 

But to a practised eye, the Commons resembled a Wild West town in the minutes before High Noon. That svelte fellow apparently reading the list of amendments? That’s Robert “Caesar Hair” Jenrick, who stormed off Boss Rishi Sunak’s ranch last year after a row about Cabinet seats. That gigantic chap behind him looking at his phone? “Little” Simon Clarke, the tallest gun in the North East.

And over there, lounging at the other end of the government benches and pretending not to watch them as he spat tobacco juice into the dust, that was Nice Guy Robert Buckland, the man once simply called Justice Secretary. People had said he’d retired, but here he was, back for one last battle. Sitting nearby, and looking like he might weigh in on Buckland’s side, was Billy “The Kid” Wragg, who could nail a Cabinet Secretary at 30 yards with one raised eyebrow. 

The coming gunfight was about the Rwanda Bill, which has become the presenting crisis of the Conservative Party. Tory MPs have persuaded themselves that if they can just fly half a dozen asylum seekers to Kigali, voters will forget the collapsing schools and overloaded hospitals, and vote for another five years of government-by-clown school. Seeking to unite his party around the policy, Sunak has deftly managed to split it three ways, with ministers caught in the crossfire between Jenrick’s hardliners, who want asylum seekers bussed from Dover to Heathrow without their feet touching the ground, and Buckland’s softies, who worry about wimpy things like human rights. 

Jenrick fired the first shots, saying he was only interested in “what works”. He blasted a few rounds at “lefty lawyers” and complained that, if asylum seekers were given the chance to challenge their deportation in the courts, “time and again we will lose”. Tim Loughton, one of Buckland’s sidekicks, popped off a shot, asking about the Rwandan government’s claim that it wouldn’t be party to anything that broke international law, but Jenrick fired back, saying this argument was “not a plausible one”. Believe the Rwandans when they say they’re a safe country, he was arguing, but not when they say they’re a law-abiding one. 

There was quite a lot of this kind of incoherence. Sir Edward Leigh argued that if you allowed the possibility of an argument that Rwanda was a dangerous place, it would be abused. “You can do a tweet in five minutes saying that the president of Rwanda is a dictator and he should be overthrown,” he said. Though if one rude tweet about Paul Kagame really does get you onto a death list, it’s possible that Rwanda isn’t quite the liberal democracy Sunak says it is.

Earlier in the day, and in another part of the building, we’d been hearing more about the Post Office scandal. Lord Arbuthnot, who as a backbench Conservative MP had done so much to fight for the wronged subpostmasters, explained to the Business Committee why it had taken decades to get justice. “You have people who have been convicted or pled guilty to a crime up against the most trusted brand in the country,” he said. But the people running the Post Office had failed to understand their own business. “It wasn’t the most trusted because of the brilliance of its management,” he went on, his voice full of gentle contempt. “It was the relationship between the subpostmasters and their communities.”

Arbuthnot’s evidence was full of the quiet potent rage of a decent man who has grasped the full extent of a great wrong. To listen to him was to be reminded that, when they’re not consumed by fratricidal grudge matches, MPs can do important work. 

And there is work still to do. The committee heard from Jo Hamilton, a former subpostmistress who is still trying to get compensation. “They say ‘justify that’ and ‘justify that’ and it just goes on and on and on,” she sighed. If ITV is looking for a sequel to Mr Bates vs the Post Office, it may be able to make Mr Bates vs the Compensation Panel

Afterwards, we would hear from the villains of the piece, executives from the Post Office and Fujitsu, who offered grovelling apologies for their companies’ roles in the biggest miscarriage of justice in British history, but then added that all these horrors had taken place before they were in charge, and they couldn’t offer any insight into why things had gone so horribly wrong. Sometimes, we were left to conclude, organisations can just lose their corporate minds. 

Which brought us neatly to the Commons chamber, and the gunfight at the Not-Really-OK Corral. Sunak may well complain that he doesn’t deserve to have to lead a divided party that can’t give up on internal battles, but as Clint Eastwood tells Gene Hackman in Unforgiven, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”

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