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UK leader Rishi Sunak dealt a blow by Conservative rebellion over his Rwanda asylum plan

A bigger test for U.K. Prime Minister will come Wednesday when lawmakers are set to vote on the bill as a whole

Rishi Sunak
Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in the House of Commons. January 15, 2024.Jessica Taylor/HOC (via REUTERS)

U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak suffered a substantial rebellion by Conservative Party lawmakers on Tuesday over his stalled plan to send asylum-seekers on a one-way trip to Rwanda, in a blow both to the policy and to his authority over the fractious governing party.

Sunak has made the controversial — and expensive — immigration policy central to his attempt to win an election this year.

To do that he needs to unite the Conservatives, who trail far behind the Labour opposition in opinion polls. But the liberal and authoritarian wings of the Conservatives — always uneasy allies — are at loggerheads over the Rwanda plan. Moderates worry the policy is too extreme, while many on the party’s powerful right wing think it wouldn’t go far enough in deterring migration to the U.K.

Two of the party’s deputy chairmen joined calls to toughen up the government’s flagship Safety of Rwanda Bill in the House of Commons. Lee Anderson and Brendan Clarke-Smith announced they were quitting their posts Tuesday in order to back amendments seeking to shut down asylum-seekers’ avenues of appeal against deportation to Rwanda by closing loopholes and sidelining judges.

Those amendments didn’t pass in the House of Commons on Tuesday, but about 60 Tories joined the rebellion.

A bigger test for Sunak will come Wednesday when lawmakers are set to vote on the bill as a whole. Some of the Conservative rebels say they will oppose the legislation if it is not strengthened. Along with opposition party votes, that might be enough to kill the legislation — a major blow to Sunak’s authority and potentially fatal to the Rwanda plan.

“I will vote against if the legislation isn’t amended. Simple as that,” said former Cabinet minister Simon Clarke, one of the rebels.

Other Conservative lawmakers may hesitate to take the nuclear option of killing Sunak’s signature policy, a move that could trigger panicky moves to replace him or even spark a snap election. The government has to call a national election by the end of the year.

Danny Kruger, a prominent right-wing lawmaker, said “I hope the government will continue the constructive conversations we’ve had and we will get into a better place tomorrow.”

Sunak insists the bill goes as far as the government can because Rwanda will pull out of its agreement to rehouse asylum-seekers if the U.K. breaks international law. In a bid to win over rebels. The government has proposed increasing the number of judges hearing asylum appeals, to speed up the process.

Conservative moderates, meanwhile, worry the bill already flirts with illegality and say they will oppose it if it gets any tougher. Those concerns were underscored by the United Nations’ refugee agency, which said Monday that the Rwanda plan “is not compatible with international refugee law.”

Britain’s main opposition parties oppose the bill. Scottish National Party lawmaker Alison Thewliss called it an “irredeemably awful” piece of legislation that “will fail to reach its objectives because it fails to engage with reality” or understand the forces that drive people to flee their homelands.

The Rwanda policy is key to Sunak’s pledge to “stop the boats” bringing unauthorized migrants to the U.K. across the English Channel from France. More than 29,000 people made the perilous journey in 2023, down from 42,000 the year before. Five people died on the weekend while trying to launch a boat from northern France in the dark and winter cold.

London and Kigali made a deal almost two years ago under which migrants who reach Britain across the Channel would be sent to Rwanda, where they would stay permanently. Britain has paid Rwanda at least 240 million pounds ($305 million) under the agreement, but no one has yet been sent to the East African country.

The plan has been criticized as inhumane and unworkable by human rights groups and challenged in British courts. In November the U.K. Supreme Court ruled the policy is illegal because Rwanda isn’t a safe country for refugees.

In response to the court ruling, Britain and Rwanda signed a treaty pledging to strengthen protections for migrants. Sunak’s government argues that the treaty allows it to pass a law declaring Rwanda a safe destination.

If approved by Parliament, the law would allow the government to “disapply” sections of U.K. human rights law when it comes to Rwanda-related asylum claims and make it harder to challenge the deportations in court.

If the bill is passed by the House of Commons on Wednesday, it will go to the House of Lords, Parliament’s upper chamber, where it faces more opposition.

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