Robert Jenrick resigns as immigration minister over Rwanda bill in huge blow to Sunak

Rishi Sunak’s premiership in complete turmoil as he fails to quell right-wing revolt with his new Rwanda legislation

Adam Forrest,Kate Devlin
Wednesday 06 December 2023 22:03 GMT
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Tories face 'electoral oblivion' if they fail on new Rwanda legislation, says Braverman

Rishi Sunak’s premiership has been rocked by the resignation of immigration minister Robert Jenrick after the PM failed to appease Tory right-wingers with his emergency Rwanda legislation.

Home secretary James Cleverly unveiled a bill in the Commons to “disapply” the UK Human Rights Act in a bid to stop British judges from blocking the deportation of asylum seekers.

But the embattled Tory leader has not been able to head off a revolt by MPs on the right of the party, who are furious that the PM chose not to opt out of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

In his scathing resignation letter, Mr Jenrick told Mr Sunak he did not believe the new bill “provides us with the best possible chances of success” in getting the Rwanda flights to take off.

The hardliner made clear he wanted to bypass the ECHR – revealing that he had been “pushing for the strongest possible” bill that would put “national interests above highly contested interpretations of international law”.

In response, Mr Sunak branded the departure “disappointing”, but told Mr Jenrick in a letter he fears it was “based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation”.

Rishi Sunak is under pressure from both sides of the divided Tory party

Labour said the latest “chaotic chapter” of Tory infighting showed why it was time for a change of power. The Liberal Democrats said Mr Sunak had lost control of government, as another minister “flees this sinking ship”.

Mr Sunak now faces the near-impossible task of winning votes from both the Tory right, who wanted a “full fat” crackdown on the ECHR, and moderate MPs in the “One Nation” group who warn they cannot back legislation that flouts human rights law.

Adding to the PM’s woes, the sacked home secretary Suella Braverman issued a stinging attack on Mr Sunak – warning that he faces “electoral oblivion” if he fails to get Rwanda flights off the ground before the next election.

The new Sunak bill includes provisions to disapply relevant parts of the Human Rights Act so they cannot be factored into court decisions on deportation cases – but does not try to disapply the ECHR.

However, the legislation will ensure UK ministers “retain the decision on whether or not to comply” with interim orders from the European Court of Human Rights – the Strasbourg body that oversees the ECHR.

In yet another headache for Mr Sunak, the Rwandan government immediately responded to the move by warning that it could pull out of the deal if the UK fails to comply with “the highest standards of international law”.

The east-central African country’s foreign affairs minister Vincent Biruta warned: “Without lawful behaviour by the UK, Rwanda would not be able to continue with the Migration and Economic Development Partnership.”

Jenrick had ‘pushed’ for stronger version of the new Rwanda bill

Mr Sunak defended his plans at a showdown meeting of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers on Wednesday evening – but failed to keep the right-wingers onside.

A source close to Ms Braverman made clear that the bill doesn’t come close to meeting her tests. “It is fatally flawed,” the ally said. “It is a further betrayal of Tory voters.”

Some Tory right-wingers submitted letters of no confidence in Mr Sunak on Wednesday, according to ITV. Ex-minister Andrea Jenkyns, an ardent Boris Johnson loyalist, said Mr Jenrick’s resignation “may be the death knell for Sunak’s leadership”.

Dozens of hardliners – including members of the 35-strong New Conservatives, the Common Sense Group and the European Research Group – met again on Wednesday evening to decide if they could vote for the new bill.

The Independent understands many of them are unhappy with the “middle way” option to disapply the Human Rights Act. One senior MP said there would be “no purpose” to the bill if it fails to thwart ECHR challenges.

The PM had been warned that he faced an even more damaging rebellion – with the possible resignation of up to 10 moderate ministers – if he used the emergency legislation to bypass the ECHR.

Senior Tory moderate Damian Green, chair of the One Nation group – which boasts support from around 100 MPs – has warned Mr Sunak that he “should think twice before overriding both the ECHR and HRA”.

Former home secretary Suella Braverman told Mr Sunak to bypass ECHR or face ‘oblivion’

A spokesman for One Nation said it welcomed the government’s decision to stick with “international commitments” – but is now taking legal advice on whether it can now support the bill.

The front page of the legislation concedes that the government is unable to say whether the bill is compatible with the ECHR, an admission that may make moderates uneasy about voting for it in parliament in the crucial days ahead.

New foreign secretary David Cameron said he was “sorry” that Mr Jenrick had resigned. But he defended the “comprehensive” Rwanda bill – claiming it would “put this policy beyond doubt” and get flights started.

In his exit letter, Mr Jenrick told the Tory leader he refused to be “yet another politician who makes promises on immigration to the British public but does not keep them”.

Mr Sunak wrote back: “Your resignation is disappointing given we both agree on the ends, getting flights off to Rwanda so that we can stop the boats. I fear that your departure is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation. It is our experience that gives us confidence that this will work.”

In another surprise, Ms Braverman made a formal resignation speech in the Commons. She suggested her own previous “stop the boats” legislation should have been scrapped in favour of a “more robust alternative that excluded international and human rights laws”.

The Tory hardliner attacked “expansive human rights laws flowing” from the ECHR that were stopping the Rwanda flights. Ms Braverman also said it was “no secret” that she supports quitting the ECHR altogether.

Her unusual personal statement to the Commons followed her bitter exit last month. A similar speech by Geoffrey Howe following his resignation in the Commons in 1990 is often credited with ending Margaret Thatcher’s political career.

It came despite the government claiming that the new bill would “unambiguously exclude the courts from challenging the fact that Rwanda is safe”. Mr Sunak insisted that his new legislation would make sure his Rwanda plan “cannot be stopped”.

Speaking in the Commons, Mr Cleverly said the bill was “lawful, fair and necessary”. The home secretary told MPs that the government was determined to pass its emergency legislation through parliament quickly. He also denied Labour claims that Rwanda was getting cold feet due to the “toxic” deal.

The UK’s top court last month blocked the Rwanda policy over concerns that genuine refugees could be wrongly sent back to their countries of origin where they would face persecution.

Nick Vineall KC, chair of the Bar Council, said the new bill was still “likely to give rise to legal challenges” over planned deportations – pointing out that it “retains the right of the courts to consider whether Rwanda is a safe country for any particular individual.”

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