Sunak faces right-wing Tory revolt on Rwanda as Cleverly signs controversial treaty

Home secretary insists Rwanda is ‘safe country’ – but both right-wing Tories and party moderates warn Sunak they may not support his plan B legislation

Adam Forrest,Kate Devlin
Tuesday 05 December 2023 15:39 GMT
Cleverly asked if he called Rwanda scheme 'bats***'

Home secretary James Cleverly has signed a new treaty with Rwanda in a bid to rescue Rishi Sunak’s thwarted deportation plan.

Emergency ‘plan B’ legislation is also planned soon, as Mr Sunak tries to assert that Rwanda is a safe country to send migrants following his government’s defeat at the Supreme Court.

Senior Tory right-winger are plotting a rebellion and are pushing the PM to opt out of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) – warning he must go for the “full fat” version to get around judges.

The Independent understands the 35 MPs in the New Conservatives group will meet others on the right – including the Commons Sense Group and European Research Group – tonight to discuss whether to vote against Mr Sunak’s legislation if it is not tough enough.

But senior Tory moderates are also warning Mr Sunak they may not support his legislation if he does try to flout the ECHR – arguing that it would be “a mistake” that doesn’t have public support.

Both sides poses a real threat to Mr Sunak’s plans – since only around 25 to 30 Tory MPs would be needed to vote with the opposition to defeat his landmark legislation.

Mr Cleverly travelled to Kigali on Tuesday, as the PM attempts to make his plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda legally sound after the Supreme Court’s ruling against the policy.

Legal experts and charities believe the attempt to get flights started before the 2024 election will fail – with the government’s own lawyers said to be pessimistic about efforts to get around human rights law.

Mr Cleverly, who met his counterpart Vincent Biruta to sign the treaty, hopes the upgraded agreement, which gives it the status of international law, will address the problems that led the UK’s highest court to rule the “offshoring” deportation scheme unlawful.

But in Kigali, Mr Cleverly could not guarantee the first flight of asylum seekers to Rwanda will take off in the spring. as the government aims.

James Cleverly meets British High Commissioner to Rwanda, Omar Daair

The home secretary said: “We want to see this part of our wider migration plan up and running as quickly as possible. We feel very strongly this treaty addresses all of the issues of their lordships in the Supreme Court.”

He said he “could not see any credible reason” to question Rwanda’s track record, adding the planned new domestic legislation would come “soon”.

UK lawyers are to be sent to Rwanda to help process claims and ensure appeals are granted correctly. Ministers said the new treaty would ensure those relocated to Rwanda are not at risk of being sent back to countries they have fled – an act known as refoulement – including through a new appeal body.

An independent monitoring committee will assess the processing of asylum claims and the treatment and support for individuals for up to 5 years. It will also establish a new whistleblowing system to allow asylum seekers sent to Rwanda to lodge confidential complaints.

James Cleverly and Rwandan foreign minister Vincent Biruta

John Hayes MP, sacked home secretary Suella Braverman’s mentor, is demanding that the Tory leader opt out of the ECHR in its emergency Rwanda legislation.

“We need severe measures. It important to get those flights off to Rwanda – so we need to be really tough,” the leader of the Tories’ Commons Sense Group told The Independent.

Senior Tory Mark Francois, the ERG chief, also warned Mr Sunak that it could be “three strikes and you’re out” – urging the PM to to ignore the ECHR in the emergency Rwanda legislation.

Tory moderates in the ‘One Nation’ caucus – which boats around 100 MPs – have urged Mr Sunak to remain committed to both the ECHR and the UK Human Rights Act in the emergency Rwanda legislation.

Stephen Hammond, deputy chair, said moderate MPs would “struggle to support a so-called full-fat” option – warning that any attempt to flout the ECHR would be “a mistake and doesn’t have public support”.

Former minister Damian Green, chair of the One Nation group, said: “The government should think twice before overriding both the ECHR and HRA and not rush such long term, difficult decisions.” He said the group was studying the Rwanda treaty “extremely carefully”.

The Supreme Court ruling has a major impact on Rishi Sunak’s promise to ‘stop the boats’

Immigration minister Robert Jenrick claimed that he is confident Rwanda flights will take off before the general election – as he described illegal migrants as having “broken into” the UK.

The hardline cabinet minister said “it’s profoundly wrong” for people to be entering the UK illegally on small boats, telling Sky News: “If you or I crossed an international border, or literally broke into another country, we would expect to be treated very seriously.”

Senior civil servants at the Home Office are said to have warned No 10 that its Rwanda legislation is destined to fail. Government lawyers are reportedly refusing to sanction the most draconian version, that would opt out of the ECHR by using a “notwithstanding” clause to direct UK judges to ignore it in asylum cases.

Sacked home secretary Suella Braverman visisted Rwanda in April

Enver Solomon of the Refugee Council said the treaty showed a “callous disregard for people who have fled unimaginable horrors” and will have a “devastating impact” on the mental health of people seeking asylum. He added: “It’s time for the government to admit that the Rwanda plan just isn’t the right way forward.”

The Freedom from Torture campaign group said the it was “shameful” to strike a new treaty. “No amount of tinkering will change the fundamental fact that this ‘cash for humans’ deal is immoral … it needs to be shelved once and for all,” they said.

The Law Society’s president Nick Emmerson said: “The suggestion of stationing British lawyers in Rwanda implies a lack of confidence in how cases would be handled there .... The government needs to admit the scheme is likely beyond repair.”

It comes as a new poll Redfield & Wilton Strategies found that more people who voted for the Tories in 2019 plan to support Reform UK than Labour. Some 15 per cent plan to ditch the Conservatives for the hard right party, while only 13 per cent will go to Labour, the survey found.

In a bid to cut record-high net migration, Mr Cleverly increased the salary threshold for foreign workers to £38,700. The measures announced on Monday also banned overseas social care staff from bringing dependants to the UK.

But Mr Jenrick said more measures may be required to bring down legal migration. “You’re right to say that more things may need to be done, but without question this is a big step forward,” he told GB News on Tuesday.

And in remarks which raise eyebrows at Westminster, the immigration minister also said there would be “merits” to introducing an annual, “Australia-style” cap on net migration – a move demanded by Ms Braverman.

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