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What Happens Next With The Rwanda Bill: Rishi Sunak Still Faces An Almighty Row

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak after delivering a Downing Street speech (Alamy)

7 min read

Rishi Sunak managed to swerve a catastrophic rebellion when his Rwanda Bill cleared its second reading in the House of Commons on Tuesday night, but the Prime Minister still faces a major row with the right of the Conservative party when it reaches its next stage in the new year.

The Rwanda bill, which is accompanied by a treaty with the African country, forms a key part of Sunak's pledge to stop people illegally reaching the south coast of England in small boats.

The government quickly introduced the legislation in an attempt to side step international human rights obligations after the Supreme Court's ruling last month that proposals to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda was unlawful, further stalling the Prime Minister's hope of enacting the policy ahead of the general election, which must be called before the end of next year. 

The Bill, which seeks to declare Rwanda is a safe country, has opened up severe dividing lines in the Conservative party, with those on the right wing of the party keen to shut off all routes to asylum seekers to challenge deportation to Rwanda, while Tory moderates are less keen on disapply elements of the Human Rights Act in order to achieve that.

Rebels on the right who had threatened to vote down the Bill retreated on the condition that the legislation could be altered at later parliamentary stages, much to the relief of the Prime Minister.

But Sunak still faces a major challenge getting the legislation into law on time, with the moderates threatening to withdraw their support if certain concessions are made to the right. 

Here is what you need to know about will happen next to the Rwanda bill:

How many MPs have voted for and against the Rwanda Bill so far?

Ahead of Tuesday's vote, speculation was swirling around Westminster that Sunak was at real risk of losing the first House of Commons vote on his new Rwanda legislation as a result of coordinated efforts by multiple factions of Conservative MPs with varying objections to the Bill.

It would have been the first time a government had lost a vote on the Second Reading of a piece of legislation in nearly forty years, and would have seriously undermined the beleaguered Prime Minister's authority.

But in the end 313 MPs voted for the bill, while 269 voted to reject it, giving Sunak a majority of 44.

Not a single Conservative MP voted against the legislation, despite much of the right of the parliamentary Tory party declaring that they cannot support it in its current form. 38 Conservative MPs abstained. 

The result was by no means a comfortable position for a government with an 80-seat majority to find itself in, especially so early in the legislative process, but it was a better margin of victory than was anticipated. 

MPs will hold further votes on the legislation, and have the opportunity to table amendments, when Parliament returns from Christmas recess early next year. The government is yet to set out a specific timetable for this, but Rwanda Bill's passage through parliament is expected to resume in January.

What are right-wing Tories planning now?

MPs on the right of the Conservative party who have serious issues with the legislation in its current form decided to abstain, rather than vote against it, claiming that they wanted to work with the government on securing the changes they want to see. 

MPs in this wing of the party are spread across five groups including the European Research Group (ERG), the New Conservatives, the Common Sense Group, the Conservative Growth Group and the Northern Research Group. As a collective they are demanding significant changes to the legislation, complaining that it does not go far enough to shut off legal challenges on deportations to Rwanda when launched by individuals. 

They are pressuring Sunak to override the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) to achieve this, although it is unclear how they intend to do so in a way that would be legally viable.

These Conservative MPs have vowed to push amendments when the legislation returns to the Commons, and have threatened to vote against the government next time – rather than abstain as they have so far – if ministers do not satisfy their demands.

One MP who is part of this right-wing campaign told PoliticsHome their strategy is akin to going "on strike" until the Prime Minister hardens the Rwanda legislation.

Will they be successful?

But here's the thing: Downing Street has been clear that while ministers are willing to listen to Conservative MPs about possible amendments to the Rwanda Bill early next year, any changes to the legislation must be within clear "parameters".

The Prime Minister's spokesperson has stressed that the legislation must remain "legally credible". The Rwandan government has also threatened to withdraw from the partnership with the UK does away with international law, further restricting how malleable Sunak is able to be on the Tory right's demands.  

“We'll have discussions with colleagues. We'll listen to any suggestions on amendments," the Downing Street spokesperson said on Wednesday. 

“Our focus remains getting flights off the ground as swiftly as possible.

"That is what the bill would enable us to do and the PM has been clear that on the issue of putting forward amendments, they need to be done in a way that is legally credible, has the deterrent effect, and ensures the scheme does not collapse.”

What do Tories on the other side of the divide want?

MPs in the more moderate wing of the Conservatives, who sit in the One Nation caucus, have warned they will not continue to support the Bill if it overrides international human rights law, in particular the ECHR.

The group's dozens of MPs, who are led by former secretary of state Damian Green, agreed to vote with the government at Second Reading — but strictly on the basis that the Bill will not be subject to further hardening when it is put to further votes early in 2024. 

An ally of the Prime Minister reiterated this point on Wednesday, and warned that the moderates were being underestimated.

"The One Nationers are deeply unhappy with this Bill," they told PoliticsHome.

They added that just because its members have promised to support the legislation so far, "that doesn’t mean it won’t break them” later in the parliamentary process. 

Even if Sunak does manage to get a version of the Bill that is acceptable to both wings through the Commons, it will still need to clear the House of Lords, and the government is already braced for fierce opposition in the upper chamber in 2024. A number of Conservative peers have already strongly opposed the Prime Minister's plan to declare Rwanda a safe country through legislation and disapply elements of the Human Rights Act.

All of which leaves Sunak with a challenging circle to square...

A number of MPs in the right-wing alliance were frustrated with the group's decision to collectively abstain on Tuesday night, arguing privately that they are very unlikely to secure meaningful changes later in the legislative process. Those MPs believe they would have been better off killing the legislation at this stage in an attempt to force Sunak into drawing up new, harder plans.

The Prime Minister appeared to crack a daring joke at the expense of the ERG, Common Sense Group and other right-wing factions at today's PMQs, quipping that the Conservative party had set a record for a number of "families", in reference to the bloc's decision to refer to themselves as the "five families".

But Sunak risks having much less to laugh about if he can't work out a way to meet the demands of one wing of the party, without automatically losing the support of the other. 

Speaking to BBC Newsnight on Tuesday night, Conservative MP Ben Bradley acknowledged that you could reasonably describe the parliamentary Tory party as "kind of ungovernable" — potentially foreshadowing the storm that awaits the Prime Minister next year.

An ally of Sunak acknowledged that No 10 had a lot of careful "handling" of the parliamentary Tory party to get the legislation over the line next year.

Sunak has won the first battle. But whether he can win the war remains to be seen.

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