Rishi Sunak clings on as the Conservative rebellion on his Rwanda legislation fizzles out

After 48 hours of high stakes political drama the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has succeeded in getting his key Rwanda bill through the House of Commons after a highly publicised Conservative backbench rebellion fizzled out yesterday.

The bill, which aims to drastically curtail legal challenges by asylum seekers from being deported to Rwanda, a key part of the Government’s anti-illegal migration plan, was approved by 320 votes to 276, with just 18 Conservative failing to back it.

But just 24 hours earlier the bill had seemed in serious trouble as more than 60 conservative MPs, including two of the party’s most popular vice chairman, Lee Anderson and Sir Simon Clarke, supported an amendment to the legislation from former immigration Minister Robert Jenrick, aimed at allowing the UK Government to ignore parts of human rights law that could prevent illegal migrants being deported to Rwanda.

Even yesterday scores of discontented Conservative MPs lined up to criticise the draft legislation as deeply flawed and unlikely to succeed.

The vote was greeted in Downing Street with relief and will be seen as giving the Prime Minister’s battered authority a much-needed boost after days of speculation as to whether he would be able to get the draft legislation through the Commons and some political commentators speculating about a possible leadership challenge to Mr Sunak if the bill failed to pass.

The Prime Minister repeatedly argued that deporting some asylum seekers to Rwanda, is a key part of a package of measures the Government is taking to deter illegal migrants from seeking to get to Britain by crossing the English Channel in so-called small boats.

Speaking after the vote in the Commons, Conservative MP Danny Kruger who voted against the bill, told the BBC that some of his colleagues had opted reluctantly to support the legislation despite their concerns in order to avoid further “political disruption”.

Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs also criticised the draft legislation as an expensive gimmick that did not work. Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper labelled the policy a “costly con” highlighting that despite the policy being announced last year, it had failed to send a single asylum seeker to Rwanda.

The UK has so far paid a staggering ÂŁ240 million to Rwanda as part of a deal for the African country to take illegal asylum seekers with further payments totalling another ÂŁ50 million or more expected in coming months.

The bill now moves to the House of Lords where it is widely expected to be robustly challenged and amended by peers, many of whom have expressed outright hostility to the legislation and believe it intrudes on independence of the judiciary.

Speaking to the BBC’s Today programme crossbench peer Lord Carlisle, a top lawyer and former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation said that peers did not want to “thwart the government” nevertheless they had “a responsibility to protect the public from abuse of legal correctness and principle by the government”.

He continued: “We’ve seen in various other countries the damage that can be done when governments use perceived an often-ill-judged political imperatives to place themselves above the courts.

“This is a step towards totalitarianism and an attitude that the United Kingdom usually deprecates.”

With public concern about illegal migration remaining high, the Government hopes the legislation will be approved within weeks so that it can start the flights to Rwanda this spring ahead of the General Election later in the year.

However, the Conservative rebels doubt the Government will be able to deliver on this timetable, as Sir Simon Clarke said: “All Conservatives want the Rwanda policy to succeed… however the profound misgivings some of us hold about the bill are on record and history will now relate who was right.”

Alistair Thompson

Alistair Thompson is the Director of Team Britannia PR and a journalist.