Rishi Sunak’s olive branch to Tory MPs to stave off rebellion over Rwanda

Ahead of a vote on the bill on Tuesday government sources say they are ‘happy to have conversations’ with rebel MPs

Archie Mitchell
Political correspondent
Friday 08 December 2023 19:04 GMT
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Rishi Sunak announces Rwanda bill that ‘ends merry-go-round’ of immigration legal challenges

Rishi Sunak is extending an olive branch to disgruntled Tory MPs to stave off a rebellion over his Rwanda plan after the cost of the deportation scheme hit £290m.

Ahead of a vote on the policy on Tuesday government sources said they are “happy to have conversations” with rebel MPs about its future, providing the bill passes.

The PM is bracing for a backlash from the left and right of the Tory party over an emergency bill deeming the east African nation a safe place to deport asylum seekers.

It is a last-ditch bid to get planes in the air after the Supreme Court ruled the government’s previous plans illegal.

The legislation gives ministers the powers to disregard sections of the Human Rights Act, but does not go as far as allowing them to dismiss the European Convention on Human Rights.

As a result, MPs on the left of Mr Sunak’s party view it as too extreme, while right-wingers say the bill is not tough enough to ensure flights take off.

Sunak called an emergency press conference on Thursday regarding the bill

Tensions over the bill flared further on Friday as it emerged the cost of the Rwanda plan has more than doubled to hit £290m.

Despite not a single asylum seeker being sent to the east African nation, the government has handed Kigali an additional £100m. That came on top of an initial £140m payment, with the government to send an additional £50m next year.

In Tuesday’s vote it would take just 29 rebel Tories to defeat the government. Veteran Tory MP Henry Smith told The Independent if the government fails to pass the bill it is the “end of the line” for the Conservatives.

And despite the PM insisting Tuesday’s vote is not a vote of confidence in his leadership, Mr Smith said “it’s a vote of sufficient importance” so as to be.

Tory deputy chairman Rachel Maclean has also said the Rwanda vote will amount to a vote of confidence in the government. Tory MPs who were due to be away from parliament on Tuesday have been ordered to change their plans for the vote.

Senior Tory David Davis dismissed criticism of the scheme’s cost, saying it would be “cheap if it works”.

The former Brexit secretary told The Independent he will vote for the Rwanda bill and expects it to get through the Commons on Tuesday. “Anything else would be madness,” he said.

The PM’s control over his party has already been stretched by the resignation of former immigration minister Robert Jenrick and his decision to sack ex-home secretary Suella Braverman.

Ahead of the vote, new immigration minister Tom Pursglove said the government could be open to compromises with rebel Tory MPs unhappy about the bill. He said ministers “will engage constructively with parliamentarians around any concerns that they have”.

The olive branch could stave off a rebellion on Tuesday, with disgruntled MPs voicing their objections and seeking amendments at a later stage of the legislative process.

But government sources stressed there is “not a lot of room for manoeuvre” for toughening up the bill, while the PM will not water it down and risk it not working.

Mr Smith is backing the Rwanda bill, but said the government “can’t be sure of its majority” and its passage looks tricky.

And he said the government has chosen a “risky strategy” by putting so much weight behind the Rwanda scheme.

Jonathan Gullis, the right-wing Tory MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, said he is “sceptical” the bill goes far enough to ensure future deportation flights are not thwarted by the courts.

He said the bill risks leaving the government “stuck in the courts” facing appeals from every individual asylum seeker it tries to deport. But Mr Gullis said the PM will retain his confidence whatever the outcome of the vote, telling Sky News Mr Sunak “should lead us into the next general election”.

It came after the revelation about the spiralling cost of the scheme sparked fury, with Yvette Cooper describing it as “incredible”.

The shadow home secretary said: “The Tories’ have wasted an astronomical £290m of taxpayers’ money on a failing scheme which hasn’t sent a single asylum seeker to Rwanda.

“How many more blank cheques will Rishi Sunak write before the Tories come clean about this scheme being a total farce?”

Home Office permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft set the new figures out in a late night letter to Dame Diana Johnson, chair of the home affairs committee, and Dame Meg Hillier, chair of the public accounts committee.

It came just days after he said he had been blocked by ministers from doing so. But Dame Diana and Dame Meg criticised Mr Rycroft, saying they were “disappointed” he had written to them at 9.16pm on Thursday night, showing “an extreme lack of respect”.

The pair have summoned him to face a grilling on Monday about whether the Rwanda plan represents good value for taxpayers’ money, ahead of the bill being voted on.

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