Lee Anderson and Brendan Clarke-Smith resigned after siding with right-wing Tory MPs trying to force the PM to toughen up the bill with last-minute changes.
It came as ex-immigration minister Robert Jenrick and other hardliners insisted that they were ready to defy the government at Wednesday’s showdown vote after their amendments were voted down.
Tory rebels told The Independent that there could be more than 30 MPs willing to defy Mr Sunak and hand him a humiliating defeat if he does not make his changes ahead of the vote on Wednesday evening.
Former minister Sir Simon Clarke said he wasn’t “f***ing around” as he vowed to vote against the bill, while Boris Johnson encouraged the insurrection by insisting Mr Sunak’s legislation was changed to be made as “robust as possible”.
Understood to have been pushed out by the government whips over their insurrection, Mr Anderson and Mr Clarke-Smith announced their exit in a joint resignation letter.
The pair said they wanted to “strengthen” the bill and told the PM they would “need to offer you our resignations from our roles”. They also argued that Mr Sunak was allowing himself to be “bound by a Blair-era legal framework and international agreements which are out of date”.
Speaking after his resignation, Mr Anderson told GB News: “I don’t think I could carry on in my role when I fundamentally disagree with the Bill. I can’t be in a position to vote for something I don’t believe in.” He added he believes the Bill “could work” and insisted the prime minister still had “100%” of his support.
Jane Stevenson, the parliamentary private secretary (PPS) to business secretary Kemi Badenoch, also quit after backing the rebel amendment. She said she did not consider her votes to have been “anti-government, but they do warrant resignation”.
It is difficult to vote for it unamended. It’s very hard to vote for something you don’t think is going to work
Tory MP John Hayes
In bigger-than-expected rebellions, some 68 MPs – including almost 60 Tories – voted for Sir Bill Cash’s amendment aimed at restricting the use of international law to thwart Rwanda flights. And 58 MPs voted in favour of Mr Jenrick’s amendment aimed at severely limiting individual asylum seekers’ ability to appeal.
It would take just 29 Tory MPs to overturn Mr Sunak’s 56-seat majority and defeat the government at the final Commons vote on Wednesday.
Dozens of senior Tory MPs on the right – including former PM Liz Truss, ex-home secretary Suella Braverman, former leader Iain Duncan Smith and ex-cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg – gathered in parliament on Tuesday night to discuss how to vote.
One senior Tory rebel told The Independent: “Even if half of the 65 signatories [to amendments] voted against the bill it would be enough to defeat the government – the government should be aware it’s possible if they don’t accept amendments.”
They added: “A defeat would be very serious for the prime minister. It would probably mean Labour putting forward a no-confidence vote in the Commons. Nobody in the party wants that.”
Tory whips were said to be in “overdrive” trying to persuade MPs to back the government. The government does not plan to accept any of the rebel amendments – but could still produce its own changes, or even delay the crunch vote if it is facing defeat.
John Hayes, the Common Sense Group leader, told The Independent: “It is difficult to vote for it unamended. It’s very hard to vote for something you don’t think is going to work.”
Mr Hayes – often described as Suella Braverman’s mentor – said rebel MPs were “increasingly enthusiastic about our position”. He added: “The government could produce their own amendment or delay [the vote]. They would be wise to do so.”
Tory rebel Mark Francois, chair of the European Research Group (ERG), did not rule out voting against the government. Asked if the rebels have the numbers to defeat Mr Sunak, he said: “All I will say at this stage is I think the numbers [on amendments] tonight speak for themselves.”
Mr Jenrick warned in the Commons that attempts by the right to strengthen the Rwanda plan were Mr Sunak’s “last opportunity” to stop small boat crossings.
The ex-immigration minister – who quit over the “weak” legislation – said he could see “no reason” why the PM could not accept his amendments and fix the flaws in his Rwanda plan “once and for all”.
The hardliner said: “I am prepared to vote against the bill ... because this bill doesn’t work, and I do believe that a better bill is possible.”
In a last-ditch attempt to calm hardliners’ concerns, Mr Sunak’s justice secretary Alex Chalk said he has asked more judges to be appointed to the first-tier and upper tribunal to speed up courts dealing with migrant appeals.
It is understood 150 judges could be brought in to deal with cases. The judiciary has identified judges who could provide 5,000 additional sitting days while extra space had been prepared.
But senior Tory MP Danny Kruger, co-founder of the New Conservatives, said rebels were not satisfied by Mr Sunak’s assurances that he is prepared to ignore European judges or boost the number of judges.
“I’m afraid I’m not yet satisfied by what we’ve heard from the PM,” he told GB News. “We really hope that the government has listened to us and is prepared to concede and ideally adopt the amendments as its own.”
Miriam Cates – co-founder of the New Conservatives group – told BBC the desperate courts move showed that the government “is expecting a large number of individual claims”.
And Mr Johnson – at odds with Mr Sunak ever since he was kicked out of No 10 – twisted the knife by offering his support to the Tory rebels. “This bill must be as legally robust as possible – and the right course is to adopt the amendments,” the former PM said on X, formerly Twitter.
Former justice secretary Sir Robert Buckland – a leading One Nation moderate – said Mr Sunak should keep calm and carry on. “It would be best advised not to accept any of the amendments from my colleagues on the right.”
Earlier, cabinet minister Michael Gove had said that he was “pretty sure” Mr Anderson would still be in post at the next election. “Lee is a friend ... the concerns that Lee has about the bill are the concerns that the country has about migration more broadly,” the levelling up secretary told Times Radio.
Labour’s campaign coordinator Pat McFadden said the resignations showed that Mr Sunak is “too weak to lead his party and too weak to lead the country”.
The Liberal Democrats said Mr Sunak had “again been embarrassed by his own MPs”. Home affairs spokesperson Alistair Carmichael said: “If the prime minister can’t even settle squabbles in his own party, how can he be expected to run the country?”