Sunak set to hold press conference after winning key Commons vote on Rwanda Bill

The Prime Minister now faces a showdown with the House of Lords over his Rwanda plan.

Dominic McGrath
Thursday 18 January 2024 10:11 GMT
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will hold a press conference later after his Rwanda Bill cleared the Commons (James Manning/PA)
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will hold a press conference later after his Rwanda Bill cleared the Commons (James Manning/PA) (PA Wire)

Rishi Sunak will hold a press conference later after his Rwanda Bill got Commons approval, as many would-be Tory rebels fell into line to back the flagship legislation.

The Safety of Rwanda Bill passed its third reading in the Commons unamended with a majority of 44 after only 11 Tories, including former home secretary Suella Braverman, voted against the Prime Minister’s immigration plan.

With the legislation now set to move to the House of Lords, where serious opposition is expected, Mr Sunak is likely to urge peers to pass the Bill as soon as possible.

In a sign of some of the concerns felt by peers, Lord Carlile, a former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, warned on Thursday that the bill represents “a step towards totalitarianism”.

But Home Office minister Chris Philp said he expected the legislation to pass through the Lords relatively speedily, telling Times Radio: “It’s a pretty short Bill, which means it should be able to get through the House of Lords fairly fast.”

The successful passage of the Bill is a boost to Mr Sunak, but it came after another display of the deep divisions in the Tory party after dozens of backbenchers rebelled to back right-wing amendments over the course of Tuesday and Wednesday.

Before the third reading vote, Mr Sunak was hit by another revolt — following on from similar-sized rebellions on Tuesday — as 61 Tory MPs backed an amendment, proposed by former immigration minister Robert Jenrick, designed to toughen the Bill.

But rebels, after an 11th-hour meeting in Parliament on Wednesday, signalled before the third reading vote that they were prepared to back the Bill without any changes as they regarded that a defeat for the Government would be damaging ahead of a general election that is only months away.

Downing Street described the Rwanda Bill’s progression as a “major step” in the Prime Minister’s pledge to stop small boats of asylum seekers from coming to Britain via the English Channel.

The Prime Minister has previously said it is his ambition to have removal flights leaving by the spring.

But Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg, the former business secretary, told Newsnight he thought it “unlikely” deportations would take place before the next general election, expected in the second half of 2024, after amendments to the Bill failed.

Sir Jacob was one of dozens of rebels who supported Mr Jenrick’s amendment on Wednesday, which was designed to allow UK ministers to ignore flight-grounding emergency injunctions by European judges, but then backed the legislation at third reading.

Around eight others, including Lee Anderson, who resigned as deputy Conservative Party chairman to back rebel amendments on Tuesday, were among those thought to have abstained on the final vote, bringing the size of the Tory rebellion close to 20.

Mrs Braverman said after the result that the Safety of Rwanda Bill would be open to legal challenges and was “destined to fail”.

But Downing Street said the “landmark legislation” would “ensure we get flights off to Rwanda”.

Mr Sunak has made the Rwanda policy — first proposed in 2022 while Boris Johnson was in No 10 — central to his premiership, forming part of his pledge to stop small boats of migrants from coming to Britain by the English Channel.

Under the plan, migrants who cross the Channel in small boats could be sent to Rwanda rather than being allowed to seek asylum in the UK.

The legislation, along with a recently signed treaty with Kigali, is aimed at ensuring the scheme is legally watertight after a Supreme Court ruling against it last year.

The stalled policy comes with a £290 million bill but no asylum seekers arriving by unauthorised routes have yet been relocated after a series of challenges in the courts.

Lord Carlile warned that many peers fear that the integrity of the British legal system is “under attack” from Tory infighting.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We’ve seen in various countries the damage that is done when governments use perceived and often ill-judged political imperatives to place themselves above the courts – this is a step towards totalitarianism and an attitude that the United Kingdom usually deprecates.

“I think you’ll find that many of the lawyers in the House of Lords will say this is a step too far, this is illegitimate interference by politics with the law, on an issue that can be solved in other ways.”

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