On Wednesday, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak successfully navigated a crucial leadership test, overcoming opposition from within his own party to secure a vital parliamentary vote on his controversial proposal to relocate migrants to Rwanda. Sunak, who assumed office in October 2022, has pinned his political future on this plan as Britain approaches its upcoming general election later this year.
Despite facing resistance from right-wing rebels within the Conservative party, who had initially threatened to derail the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill, Sunak managed to rally enough support. The government ultimately emerged victorious with a comfortable margin of 320 votes to 276.
This outcome is crucial for Sunak as it helps him avoid a significant erosion of his authority, a matter of importance for his party, which is grappling with internal divisions and aims to regain support from the main opposition Labour party ahead of the nationwide vote.
The bill represents Sunak’s response to a UK Supreme Court ruling late last year that deemed the deportation of asylum seekers to Kigali as illegal under international law. If the new legislation is enacted, judges would be compelled to treat Rwanda as a safe third country. Additionally, the bill grants UK ministers the authority to bypass certain sections of international and British human rights legislation.
While the bill successfully cleared its final hurdle in the elected House of Commons, it still needs approval from the unelected upper chamber, the House of Lords, before it can become law.
The government faces challenges in the House of Lords, where it lacks a majority, and members are expected to scrutinize the proposals, potentially introducing amendments and setting the stage for another clash with Downing Street. Legal challenges could further impede the progress of the legislation, prolonging a saga that has been criticized by Labour as a “farce” and a “gimmick.”
Chris Hopkins, the political research director at polling firm Savanta, noted that the public’s perception of the government’s handling of immigration remains deeply rooted in the perception of incompetence. He suggested that tangible actions, such as planes to Rwanda actually taking off, might be necessary to shift public opinion. Hopkins emphasized that the Conservative Party has yet to restore credibility on the immigration issue, with internal divisions being prominently highlighted.
The government has already paid £240 million (280 million euros) to Kigali since the announcement of the plan by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson in April 2022. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who has committed to reducing regular migration and preventing asylum seekers from crossing the English Channel in small boats, contends that the Rwanda bill is crucial in dissuading migrants from considering unauthorized routes to the United Kingdom.
The proposal to send migrants to Rwanda has reignited divisions within the ruling party, reminiscent of the disagreements over the nature of Brexit following the 2016 EU referendum. A number of Tory lawmakers, including several dozen, supported amendments that aimed to strengthen the plan by disapplying international law and limiting migrants’ appeal rights in deportation cases.
The unsuccessful amendments, endorsed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, resulted in the resignation of two deputy chairmen who supported the proposed changes. Johnson, now not an MP and unable to vote, voiced his backing for the amendments. However, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak resisted these rebel demands, as accommodating them would likely have led to the bill being rejected by moderates who believe the legislation is already pushing the boundaries of acceptability.
In an effort to pacify dissent, Sunak’s government announced plans to hire additional judges, creating thousands of extra sittings to expedite cases through the courts. The “illegal migration minister” suggested that ministers might have the authority to compel civil servants to disregard last-minute injunctions from the European Court of Human Rights.
Sunak successfully faced down rebels during the initial vote on the bill in December. Last year, approximately 30,000 asylum seekers crossed the English Channel on makeshift vessels, and tragically, five lost their lives attempting the journey over the past weekend. On Wednesday, hundreds of asylum seekers were rescued from the frigid waters and brought ashore in the south-coast port of Dover.