I bless the flights down to Africa

It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from U(K)


What joy and frolics in Westminster as Christmas approaches! Bored as they are with the tedious bloody business of running the country, Conservative MPs have spent the week attempting to recreate the heady days of 2019, when they held the prime minister to ransom over issues that they cared about far more fiercely than they understood.

This was heckling as performance art

It’s vital to remember that life for the average backbench MP is quite unexciting. Constituents write to you with their problems, whips tell you which way to vote, and journalists ignore you. The Brexit years changed all that. Suddenly they were Important Men (and they were, very largely, men) doing Important Things. Suddenly there was no backbencher too mad to see his (and it was, very largely, his) opinion quoted in the Daily Telegraph.

This was a time when they competed to say the most awful, most self-important thing to Lobby correspondents, while the prime minister sat with her head in her hands, the government behind her as useless as a car on its roof. How the nation thrilled each night as her MPs decided to vote something else down. Meaningful votes, indicative votes, Cooper-Letwin, they rejected them all.

And now they’re doing it all again, over the Rwanda bill! What a delight it is to watch, unless you need to see a doctor. As befits their state as Very Important Figures Of History, the various rebels have given themselves grand names. Last time they were the “Spartans”, from the small group of ancient warriors who defiantly held the line at Thermopylae. This time they’re the “Five Families”, a name that suggest the average Tory MP’s cultural references are more likely to be taken from Netflix than Herodotus. There is a measurable possibility that, when they named their committee of lawyers the “Star Chamber”, it was a reference not to the Tudor court but to the 1983 film starring Michael Douglas.

And what a lot of attention it’s getting them! For days there have been breathless tweets about their numbers, their intentions, their demands. On Tuesday morning they got an “Emergency Breakfast” with the prime minister! Even if that turned out to still be Rishi Sunak, it’s better than you get by meekly going along with things.

A couple of hours later we piled into the House of Commons to watch Home Secretary James Cleverly make the case for the legislation. He opened by confirming that an asylum seeker housed on a previous government wheeze, the Bibby Stockholm barge, had died. The circumstances were unclear, but it was a reminder that somewhere underneath all this there are real human beings.

“The UK is a country that demonstrates to the whole world the importance of international law,” he said, suggesting that the speechwriters who used to slip sarcastic lines into Boris Johnson’s speeches are now working at the Home Office.

A Tory MP, Daniel Kawczynski, interrupted to point out that the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo had compared Rwandan leader Paul Kagame to Hitler. “We do not agree with that assessment,” Cleverly replied. Somehow, this wasn’t terribly reassuring.

After all, if the government wants to send hundreds of millions of pounds in bribes to a troubled nation, Northern Ireland is a lot closer than Rwanda

It was only when Labour’s Yvette Cooper spoke that the Home Secretary really came into his own. As she laid into the bill and the hundreds of millions of pounds sent to Rwanda without a single deportation to show for it, Cleverly sprawled opposite her, mouthing the same words over and over again, in an exaggerated manner so that his meaning would be clear up in the gallery: “What would you do? What would you do? What would you do?” This was heckling as performance art.

But as with Brexit, the government’s real enemy wasn’t the opposition. The people most interested in criticising the bill were Tory MPs. We had been told they might bring down the government. Would they?

At the time of going to press, the answer seemed to be No. There was a great deal of huffing and puffing, from all sides of the party, but Sunak’s house didn’t look like it was going to be blown down. Danny Kruger, on the right of things, said he wouldn’t support the bill, but not that he was going to vote against it.

Sir Bob Neill spoke for those on the other wing. “Frankly, the day the Conservative Party thinks that ends justify the means,” he fumed, “it will have ceased to be a Conservative Party.” Did that mean he’d vote against? “After a good deal of hesitation, I shall support this bill.” Aha. But never fear, readers, he gave a furious warning that if the bill went any further, he would definitely vote against it. One of these days, that might be true, but you wouldn’t want your human rights to depend on it.

Others in the Brexit Recreation Society piled in. The Democratic Unionist Party signalled it too might vote against the bill. Its MPs may have sensed an opportunity. After all, if the government wants to send hundreds of millions of pounds in bribes to a troubled nation, Northern Ireland is a lot closer than Rwanda.

Perhaps Tory MPs also have a strategy. Maybe they believe that the chaos of 2019 was what led to the election victory of 2019. Maybe Mark Francois hopes that, if he can just bring his unique blend of petulance and pomposity to enough news bulletins, the nation will turn its back on Labour and demand another five years of red-faced men yelling about what their dads did in the war. At least, in the mean time, they’ll all get to have some fun. Why else, after all, would anyone go into politics?

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover