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Rishi Sunak Wants Rwanda Flights To Take Off By Spring Despite Deep Tory Divisions

Rishi Sunak and Rwandan President Paul Kagame met at Downing Street last year (Alamy)

7 min read

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak insisted that the government plans on getting flights to Rwanda off the ground by spring, despite the ongoing divisions in his own party and the possibility that the government could be defeated on its landmark Rwanda Bill.

In the Commons on Tuesday, MPs are debating amendments to the contentious Bill, which have the aim of “toughening” it and blocking international human rights laws. Some of the amendments are intended to remove the ability of individual asylum-seekers to use suspensive claims, for example medical fitness to travel, to block their own removal to Rwanda.

Asked whether the government still planned to carry out the delayed scheme by spring, the prime minister's spokesman said “it is”, and added that it will "listen if people want to put forward a legal position as relates to their amendments".

Former immigration minister Robert Jenrick has urged MPs to support his controversial amendments to the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill, which "narrow" the conditions that can prevent asylum seekers being removed, as the legislation returns to the House of Commons.

Jenrick resigned as a minister in December over the legislation, saying "stronger protections" against illegal migration were needed than those proposed by the government.

"All my experience at the Home Office teaches me that every single illegal migrant coming to this country will try every possible way to avoid being removed," he told the Commons on Tuesday.

"We know that that's what they do today. It's human nature that people would do this. You have to legislate for human nature, not against it. And every legal representative and lefty lawyer will try everything they can to support those claims."

Urging MPs to support his amendments, Jenrick said: "We're not a parish council struggling with some kind of intractable legal issue. We're a sovereign parliament. The power is in our hands. We have agency, the law is our servant, not our master."

He insisted that the real "test" of whether the legislation is effective is whether it can create a "sustainable deterrent", rather than "symbolic fights".

Robert Jenrick is leading on amendments to "toughen" the government's Rwanda Bill (Alamy)
Robert Jenrick is leading on amendments to "toughen" the government's Rwanda Bill (Alamy)

High profile MPs including Deputy Party Chairman Lee Anderson have said they will vote for Jenrick's amendments supported by more than 60 right-wing Tory MPs. Brendan Clarke-Smith, another Deputy Party Chairman, has also expressed his support, raising the question as to whether Anderson and Clarke-Smith could get sacked from their CCHQ jobs.

Former prime minister Boris Johnson has added his own voice to the fray by posting on X that he supported the rebels and thought adding the amendments was “the right course”. 

Further amendments tabled by Jenrick will be debated on Wednesday. On the other side of the argument, centrist One Nation Conservative MP Robert Buckland has tabled amendments, including one to clarify the meaning of a “safe country”. Labour has also put in a number of amendments, including one that would suspend the treaty if a serious criminal is returned from Rwanda to the UK.

Other amendments being debated include one tabled by an Alba Party MP which would instead declare Rwanda an "unsafe" country rather than "safe".

While this could be a big setback for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s image as the party appeared deeply divided on the issue, a more significant rebellion would be for those MPs to vote against the Bill at its third reading if the amendments do not get accepted.

The third reading will be on Wednesday night if the Bill gets through unamended, but would be postponed to a later date if not. As Labour is expected to vote against the Bill, there is a chance that the government could be defeated if enough Tory MPs decide to rebel at that stage.

Jenrick told Sky News that if the legislation is not amended, he would vote against the entire piece of legislation at the earliest opportunity.

“Those of us who want to fix this problem are united, and I really hope that the government will see sense and accept our amendments now,” he said.

Adding that he would be “prepared” to then vote against the government at the third reading, he said: “I hope we don't get to that situation. It's so necessary to reach that point.”

Conservative MP Miriam Cates, who co-chairs the New Conservatives group and tabled 16 of the amendments, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that she would also be willing to vote the Rwanda Bill down if they do not get accepted.

It is unclear yet whether Anderson and Clarke-Smith would vote down the legislation if it remains unamended. Anderson told GB News that he agreed with "90% of the bill" but wanted it "beefed up".

"This is not a rebellion… we just feel that there's a few areas in the bill that could be tightened up to make sure that it's watertight,” he continued.

Responding to Jenrick in the chamber, Tory MP Tim Loughton said he doubted how effective the rebel amendments would be in creating a deterrent to illegal migrants crossing the Channel.

"There is a very large chance that his amendments would make this bill unworkable, not least in the eyes of the Rwandan government, in which case we have no deterrence," he said.

Labour shadow minister for immigration Stephen Kinnock responded in the Commons debate to reiterate Labour's position that they do not support the Bill or the Rwanda scheme itself.

"The Labour Party will never support any proposal that is unaffordable, unworkable or unlawful," he said.

"It's unaffordable to the British taxpayer, because a truly staggering 400 million pounds of our taxpayers money is on the way to the Rwandan government without a single asylum seeker landing in Rwanda.

"In order for a deterrent to be effective, it has to be credible and surely even the most ardent supporter of this policy would acknowledge that such a tiny chance of being sent to Rwanda is never going to deter someone who has risked life and limb to cross continent to escape from persecution and violence."

A senior minister on the right of the Conservative Party told PoliticsHome they believed Government would not accept the amendments and the Bill would pass pretty easily. 

“I don’t know what their strategy is,” they said, referring to the rebel MPs.

“Either they don’t know what they are doing, or they do and want to cause maximum damage.”

However, a New Conservative source told PoliticsHome that it would be "politically unwise" for the Prime Minister to sacrifice the support of "so many of his passionate representatives", particularly from the Red Wall, so publicly.

"Our sole and singular objective in proposing and supporting these amendments is to help the Prime Minister in his mission to stop the boats," they said. 

"Everybody recognises that the Bill, as currently drafted, will not work. The boats won't stop by the time of the next election.

"Will there be a consequence for not supporting these amendments? Yes, the government will fail to stop the boats and the public will rightly punish us."

Another senior Conservative insisted the Bill was “flawed”. "Even their own in-house lawyers are telling them it's just not tight enough,” they said.

“I don’t know whether they think some people in the Conservative Party will vote against them if they go ahead and add an amendment which tightens it up."

An MP who is in the European Research Group told PoliticsHome the Prime Minister's team had not yet had discussions with them or the ERG as of last night and that they were “open” to voting against the Bill. 

"The most comprehensive amendment is Bill Cash's amendment. The problem is Labour will not support it, and the Government will vote against it,” they said.

A former cabinet minister told PoliticsHome they believed Labour could think about whipping its MPs to vote for the amendments to inflict another defeat the government and in-turn wound the Conservatives. 

“It’s what John Smith did in the 90s, they [Labour] voted against Maastricht and he was one of the biggest Europhiles. All people would see are the headlines that the government has been defeated again.”

Additional reporting by Tom Scotson

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