Rishi Sunak sees Conservative rebels as MPs back Rwanda bill

  • By Kate Vannell
  • Political Correspondent, BBC News

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Rishi Sunak's war on the Rwanda project is far from over

Rishi Sunak succeeded in getting his landmark Rwanda bill through the House of Commons after a Tory rebellion failed.

The bill, which aims to stop legal challenges against ministers' plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, was approved by 320 votes to 276.

Dozens of Tories thought the bill was flawed and threatened rebellion, but in the end, only 11 voted against it.

The bill now heads to the House of Lords, where it will face fierce opposition.

Mr Sunak has argued that deporting some asylum seekers to Rwanda would deter migrants seeking to cross the Channel to Britain in small boats, but Labor has branded the plan a costly “gimmick”.

The government hopes to have flights to Rwanda in the spring.

The Prime Minister is due to hold a Downing Street press conference on policy at 10:15 GMT.

Right-wing Conservative MPs have been trying to change the bill for the past two days, arguing that without amendments, the government's Rwanda plan could be blocked by the courts.

On Wednesday, former immigration minister Robert Jenrick tabled an amendment that would allow the UK government to ignore parts of the Human Rights Act in relation to sending people to Rwanda.

Mr Jenrick also proposed an amendment that would ensure ministers automatically reject last-minute interim orders from the European Court of Human Rights.

The amendment was not approved by MPs but won the support of 61 Conservatives – the biggest upset of Mr Sunak's premiership.

Some MPs have said they are prepared to abstain or even vote against the entire bill if it remains unchanged.

The bill could have fallen if about 30 Conservatives had voted against it – a move that would have seriously damaged the prime minister's power and been dangerous.

However, in the event, only 11 MPs voted against, including Mr Jenrick and former Home Secretary Suella Braverman.

Other Tory MPs on the list include Miriam Gates, Sir Simon Clarke, Mark Francois and Danny Kruger.

Eighteen Conservative MPs did not register to vote, although some of them may have deliberately absented themselves from voting.

Two things matter at Westminster – noise and numbers. We've had bucket loads of both of these over the past few days.

But numbers, at least in the short term, always mattered most – and the government had them, the rebels did not.

This week's story is this: About 60 Conservative MPs have major reservations about the government's Rwanda plan, which boils down to a central concern — that they fear it might not work.

But most of those 60 people thought that in the end, rather than sticking with a plan that might work, that, in their view, guaranteed it wouldn't happen.

Among the 11 rebels who voted to trash it – and said their own plan would work – were three recent former cabinet ministers: Suella Braverman, Robert Jenrick and Sir Simon Clark.

Suella Braverman's judgment was stark. “I cannot vote for another piece of legislation that will fail. The British people deserve fairness, so I voted against,” he said.

The Rwanda project lives on – and that's good news for Rishi Sunak. But his real gift is proving to deliver the principle. We are quite far from that.

Conservative Danny Kruger, who voted against the bill, said some of his colleagues supported the legislation despite their concerns to avoid “political chaos”.

Sir Simon Clarke, who opposed the bill, said: “All Conservatives want the Rwanda policy to succeed… The deep misgivings some of us have about the bill are on record, but history will now tell who is right.”

The bill was opposed by Labor, with shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper branding the policy a “costly disaster” that has so far failed to send any asylum seekers to Rwanda, and shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock branding it “unaffordable and unworkable”. [and] Illegal”.

Home Secretary James brilliantly defended the plan, arguing that it sent “an unmistakably clear message that if you enter the UK illegally you cannot stay”.

“The bill has been meticulously drafted to end the joy of legal challenges,” he added.

The debate over the legislation has exposed ongoing divisions among the Conservatives – with two deputy leaders, Lee Anderson and Brendan Clarke-Smith, leaving their posts on Tuesday evening to vote for the rebel amendments.

Despite his concerns, Mr Clarke-Smith supported the bill at the final stage, while Mr Anderson did not register a vote.

One campaigner told the BBC: “Tonight's vote is not the end of the matter. If the House of Lords chooses – and I doubt they will – to send back amendments that would weaken the bill, that's the answer. [right-wing Conservative MPs] Amendments should be tabled instead of tightening the bill.”

“The prime minister is by no means out of the woods.”

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The Rwanda bill passed the parliament by 276 votes to 320.

Following its approval in the Commons, the bill will now go to the House of Lords, where it is expected to face stiff opposition.

Home Office minister Chris Philp told BBC Breakfast on Thursday: “The bill now needs to go through the House of Lords. I hope that happens very quickly.

“We want these flights to take off as soon as possible, and the aim is to do that this spring.”

But pressed on former minister Jacob Rees-Mogg's comments on BBC Newsnight, Mr Philp said he did not share his “pessimism” that Rwanda flights were unlikely to take off before the next election.

He narrowed divisions in the party and Tory rebels voted for the legislation to avoid the appearance of disunity ahead of the election.

“I don't agree with that … there was a consensus on the Conservative side as a whole that this bill as a whole made sense and represented a very important step forward,” he said.

England has so far paid £240m to the East African nation and is expected to pay another £50m.

A Rwandan government spokesman later said it was “under no obligation” to return the money but would consider a request for a refund from the UK.

In Westminster, a Downing Street spokesman was forced to deny trying to change the civil service code to include speculation that emergency injunctions from the European Court of Human Rights should be ignored.

Earlier in the day Home Office minister Michael Tomlinson said the government was “looking at it”, but hours later said he did not want to rewrite the No 10 code.

The Cabinet Office later issued guidance that it was the “responsibility” of civil servants to “implement” the minister's decision to ignore court rulings.

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