His nightmare before Christmas? The challenges facing Rishi Sunak next week

By ITV News Westminster Producer, Lucy McDaid

Rishi Sunak will be hoping to avoid his very own nightmare before Christmas next week as he faces a grilling at the Covid-19 Inquiry followed by a crunch vote on his Rwanda Bill.

The prime minister will spend the weekend working in Downing Street very much hoping his MPs will unite behind his plan to send illegal migrants to Rwanda when it faces a showdown vote on Tuesday.

But before that, the PM will be preparing for an eagerly awaited appearance before the UK's Covid-19 Inquiry, where he'll likely be forced to defend some pretty damning accusations - not least that he was happy to "just let people die" from coronavirus.

Covid-19 Inquiry: 'Doctor death'?

First up on the PM's agenda next week is his first appearance before Baroness Heather Hallet's four-year probe into the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Chancellor at the time, Rishi Sunak was responsible for the Eat Out To Help Out scheme of August 2020 that offered people 50% off food and drink in a bid to revive the economy.

But the allegation hanging over Mr Sunak is that he didn't consult any of Number 10's key health or scientific advisers about the plan and was, by implication, indifferent to the impact it would have on the spread of the virus.

WhatsApp messages already shown to the Inquiry reveal he was referred to as "Dr Death the Chancellor" by key government advisers because of his determination to keep the economy alive during the unprecedented crisis.

Sir Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England, dubbed the ex-Chancellor's policy "eat out to help the virus", it emerged this week.

Meanwhile Sir Patrick Vallance, the government's former Chief Scientific Adviser, suggested in his diary that Mr Sunak "thought it was OK to just let people die" instead of imposing a second lockdown.

Mr Sunak, who succeeded Liz Truss as prime minister in October last year, defended one of the accusations in the House of Commons earlier this month and insisted "I didn't [say it]."

But at the stand on Monday, he will be expected to justify his decisions when he was in charge of the Treasury, and robustly defend claims he was often the one pushing back against tougher measures to curb the spread of the virus.

Rwanda Bill: A make or break moment?

The other dark cloud hanging over Mr Sunak is Tuesday's crucial parliamentary vote on his newly drafted Rwanda Bill - a last ditch attempt to breathe life into his troubled plan to deport illegal migrants.

Since the resignation of the PM's former immigration minister on Wednesday, the Tory Party has been attempting to put a brave face on claims it is bitterly divided over their leader's plan to tackle small boat crossings.

In short, Mr Sunak hopes the new Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill will diminish chances of individual legal challenges being lodged against flights to Rwanda.

But, with the cost of the scheme now £290 million without a single flight taking off for Kigali, the prime minister faces breaking his promise to "finish the job" if the Bill isn't backed.

Responding to a question from ITV News' Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana on Thursday, Mr Sunak denied the vote on Tuesday amounts to a confidence vote in his government.

But that hasn't stopped comparisons being drawn with Theresa May's famous leadership crisis in 2018. Ms May survived it, but her fight to retain party unity has undeniable similarities with the battle Rishi Sunak now faces.

As ITV News' Political Editor Robert Peston says, you can't be blamed for thinking the PM's Rwanda deportation plan is the most important pledge of his premiership.

It's not looking likely his MPs will defy him, but if they do, it could be his nightmare before Christmas.

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