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Tue, 23 July 2024

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By Ben Guerin
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Tories Are "Very Nervous" About Rishi Sunak's Rwanda Deportation Legislation

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (Alamy)

4 min read

Conservative MPs in the moderate wing of the party are starting to feel "very nervous" about contentious emergency legislation intended to bypass human rights treaties to allow the UK to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, following a series of legal setbacks.

On Thursday a rattled Sunak doubled down on his defence of the legislation which he argues blocks “every single reason” a legal challenge could be mounted by those seeking to avoid removal to Rwanda, in an attempt to avert a major rebellion from the right of the party when the proposals are put to a Commons vote on Tuesday next week. 

But with Tory MPs remaining hugely divided on the issue, it seems that it’s not just the right of the party the Prime Minister needs to appease in order to pass the Bill, and that his call to backbenchers earlier this week to "unite or die" has not landed with much heft. 

PoliticsHome understands that Sunak’s tough language at Thursday’s press conference has contributed to growing concern among the Tory party's self-described moderate MPs in the One Nation caucus, who have consistently called for restraint on challenging international law in order to enact the Rwanda plan. 

Having sought legal advice from lawyer Lord Garnier, MPs in the caucus led by Damian Green are understood to be “very nervous” of his early analysis. "Concerns are being raised," a One Nation source told PoliticsHome.

Former head of the government legal service Jonathan Jones told PoliticsHome that he thinks it is “very likely” that the revised legislation could still be vulnerable to legal challenges. He identified a possible “pinch point” if courts were presented with evidence that after Parliament had directed them to consider Rwanda “safe”, but asylum seekers were moved on from the country regardless of commitments in an accompanying treaty agreed ahead of the legislation’s publication.

“What is the UK court to do in those circumstances?” Jones asked, arguing that legally you can’t rule out “a court saying ‘Parliament cannot have completely intended us to ignore serious breaches of people’s human rights on the basis of a legal fiction when there is actually evidence that Rwanda is not safe’."

“That’s the knotty thing at the centre of this,” he continued. “Obviously Government is hoping and expecting Rwanda will be safe, and that there won’t be evidence of bad things happening.”

Government officials are understood to be confident that the work done with Rwanda since the courts’ rulings and the treaty means that there is no real risk of somebody being removed.

But Sunak finds himself in a position where addressing the concerns of the moderate wing would further anger those who have been calling for the hardest possible approach to tackling small boat crossings, including ignoring international human rights law and withdrawing the UK from the European Convention of Human Rights (EHCR).

At a lunch for Westminster journalists on Thursday, Richard Holden, the chairman of the Conservative party and a close ally of Sunak, urged bickering Conservative MPs to stop fighting and unite. 

“We all know that divided parties do not win elections,” he said. “I hope that [Conservative MPs] understand the enemy is not within, the enemy is out there. I am fighting for them every single day. For all of them and all of their seats. No matter what the slight differences of opinion are.”

He said he "genuinely does not understand" why Conservative MP Robert Jenrick, who was also regarded as an ally of Sunak, decided to resign as an immigration minister on Wednesday night in protest against the new Rwanda legislation.

"What the Prime Minister is bringing forward at the moment are the toughest immigration laws we possibly could have had,” Holden continued. 

"[Jenrick] won a big debate within the government over the last few weeks to have them really tough. I don’t understand the reasoning behind what he has done." 

One senior MP on the right of the party said that while they expected the legislation to ultimately be voted through parliament next week, the more hardline MPs are still likely to push for changes to the Bill to enable their key demand of completely closing down routes to individual legal challenges.

But they added that Sunak is in a "difficult position" because he's "trying to steer a middle course" in a bid to avoid enraging particular sections of the Conservative party.

The New Conservatives and Common Sense Group, as well as the European Research Group which was instrumental in obstructing Theresa May’s Brexit deal, has convened a panel of legal experts to provide an analysis of the legislation. They are expected to deliver their verdict ahead of Tuesday’s Commons vote. 

George Osborne, the former Conservative chancellor, said on Thursday afternoon the "Tory civil wars have completely reopened" on the issue of immigration.

"Rishi Sunak's big claim was, ‘I've come after the chaos of Boris Johnson and the chaos of Liz Truss….I've stabilised things.’,” Osborne said on his podcast Political Currency.

“He can't now claim anymore to have stabilised things. His government is fragmenting around this immigration issue."

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