Rwanda: inside the battle for Rishi Sunak’s asylum bill which could lead to a general election
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In a corridor in central London, a gaggle of journalists huddled outside a meeting room waiting for a “Star” to emerge.
But it wasn’t a famous actor or singer that the crowd had gathered for, but Tory MP Mark Francois and his European Research Group’s lawyers known as “The Star Chamber”. And the Brexiteer’s hotshot legal team were about to give a judgement on Rishi Sunak’s Rwanda bill.
The decisions they make over the coming days could potentially lead to the fall of Rishi Sunak, a third unelected Conservative Prime Minister in 18 months and potentially a new general election.
Rishi’s Rwanda crisis
Before becoming Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak was said to be critical of Boris Johnson and Priti Patel’s controversial plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda for processing and resettlement. Bloomberg reported that he was sceptical on logistical, value for money and ethical grounds.
However, after Liz Truss’ time in No10 went up in smoke, Sunak did a deal with Suella Braverman to become Prime Minister, just after she had told the Conservative conference that it was her “dream” to send refugees to the east African dictatorship. Thus Sunak made “stopping the boats” one of his five promises as Prime Minister, and the Rwanda plan became the main policy.
The Supreme Court ruled decisively last month that the original scheme was unlawful under the UK’s Human Rights Act, the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN conventions on refugees and torture.
So Sunak has tried to head this off with a twin approach of a new treaty with Rwanda - which bans refoulement - and a new bill which says that the east African country is safe in the eyes of Parliament, and disapplies sections of the Human Rights Act to reduce the number of legal challenges.
This bill has become the issue for Sunak that could bring about his downfall. His Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick quit in spectacular fashion as his boss, the Home Secretary, James Cleverly was announcing the new legislation in the House of Commons. In a extraordinary step, a nervous Jenrick spent Sunday morning slamming the government’s flagship immigration policy live on the BBC - saying it simply wouldn’t work.
Now Sunak is left with a bill which might be too extreme for the centrist One Nation caucus and not hard line enough for the right-wing groupings. The Prime Minister gave a slightly desperate speech on Thursday morning, in which he insisted that any questions about whether the bill will pass should be directed at the Labour Party and not him.
The rebel alliance
Just before noon today (11 December), while Sunak was being grilled at the Covid Inquiry, the leaders of the various right-wing groupings met in the Grimond Room, just above the atrium of Portcullis House, in Parliament. This was designed to be in full view of the great and good of Westminster and just in time for the 12noon news bulletins.
An armada of acronyms took part in the meeting led by Mark Francois of the European Research Group (ERG), with Suella Braverman and John Hayes of the Common Sense Group (CSG), Danny Kruger from the New Conservatives (thankfully acronym free for the moment), Jake Berry from the Northern Research Group (NRG) and Simon Clarke from the Conservative Growth Group (CCG). Got all that?
These MPs think that Sunak plan will be too amenable to legal challenges, and does not go far enough in disapplying or even quitting international treaties such as the European Convention on Human Rights. Despite some tough words at times, the PM appears reluctant to leave the ECHR as it underpins the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland and the new trade deal with the EU.
Just before noon, Francois emerged into a crowd of reporters flanked by Clarke, Kruger, David Jones MP, from the Centre for Brexit Policy, and Martin Howe KC from the ERG’s legal advisory committee, known as “The Star Chamber”, which opined on much of the Brexit legislation. Francois immediately stuck the boot in on Sunak: “In summary, the bill provides a partial and incomplete solution to the problem of legal challenges in the UK courts being used as stratagems to delay or defeat the removal of illegal migrants to Rwanda.”
Kruger commented: “I’m concerned that the report suggests that the bill is insufficient as it’s currently drafted. The decision for all of us is whether there’s the possibility of improving the bill so it meets the expectations we all have.” Francois declined to say how the group would vote at the bill’s second reading tomorrow, but former Cabinet Minister Simon Clarke called on the government to make amendments “that will close the legal appeals”.
The MPs are meeting again tonight at Kruger’s office, and the rebel leader Jenrick is set to speak. He’s said he will vote against the bill, so if that’s anything to go by then Sunak could be in serious trouble.
At the same time, members of the more centrist One Nation caucus - led by Damian Green - are meeting to decide if the bill goes too far in disapplying international law by deeming Rwanda safe. Previously Lord Garnier, the man advising the 100-strong group on the legal implications, said it was “nonsense” and having a law saying that Rwanda is safe is like saying “all dogs are cats”.
Government trying to win MPs over
While Sunak was at the Covid Inquiry explaining why his WhatsApp messages during the pandemic vanished, the government was putting a shift in trying to win MPs over. In a highly unusual step, Downing Street announced it was publishing a summary of its legal advice on the bill.
This appears to be designed to win over the centrists as it states “a bill that sought to oust all individual claims would not” be lawful and uphold the UK’s international obligations. At 4pm this afternoon, new Illegal Migration Minister Michael Tomlinson held a briefing with MPs from all parties to try and get them onside.
It’s also been reported that Sunak will have breakfast tomorrow morning in Downing Street with wavering MPs. The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told journalists: “We will continue to listen to MPs carefully on their views … we do believe this bill is strong enough to achieve the aims that the UK public wants, which is to stop the boats. We’ve set out the legal detail as to why we think that’s the case, but we’ll continue to listen to colleagues.”
There’s a reason why Sunak is so desperate to get this bill through, not only because it may help flights get off the ground to Rwanda but because it will decide his political future. He was a new MP when Tory infighting over Brexit brought down Theresa May’s government, and knows exactly the bind he will be in if he can’t pass this legislation.
It may not technically be a confidence vote, but governments who can’t get their key policies through the Commons don’t last long. And if he fails, none other than veteran Tory MP Sir Charles Walker has said an election should be called. Are we about to witness a fourth Conservative Prime Minister in less than two years lose their job?
Ralph Blackburn is NationalWorld’s politics editor based in Westminster, where he gets special access to Parliament, MPs and government briefings. If you liked this article you can follow Ralph on X (Twitter) here and sign up to his free weekly newsletter Politics Uncovered, which brings you the latest analysis and gossip from Westminster every Sunday morning.