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Ministers threaten to quit over Rwanda flights law

Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak has been warned that overriding the European Convention on Human Rights would be a 'red line' for some Tory MPs - Leon Neal/Getty Images

Rishi Sunak faces up to 10 ministers quitting if he adopts a hardline approach on Rwanda and uses emergency legislation to circumvent the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

The MPs – identified on a list being circulated by party whips – are largely from the One Nation group of more than 100 centrist Conservatives, who issued a warning on Tuesday that “overriding” the convention would be a “red line”.

According to Whitehall sources, emergency legislation declaring Rwanda safe for asylum seekers was due to be presented to Parliament on Wednesday after James Cleverly, the Home Secretary, signed a new asylum treaty with the central African state on Tuesday.

But the legislation is now thought unlikely to be published before Thursday amid wrangling within the Government over how tough it should be.

Speaking in Rwanda, Mr Cleverly said the “emergency” legislation would come before Parliament “soon”, adding that he could see “no reason” why migrants could not be sent from the UK to Rwanda in the coming months.

He told broadcasters: “We’ve addressed the issues that the Supreme Court put forward, so I cannot see any reason why there should be further obstructions to doing what is the right thing to do, which is to support Rwanda as they deal with this international issue.”

The Bill was announced as part of the Prime Minister’s plans to get flights to Rwanda up and running in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling that the policy was unlawful.

One group within the Tory party, understood to include Cabinet ministers, is pushing for the legislation to stick to existing domestic and international human rights commitments.

Damian Green, a former deputy prime minister and the chairman of the One Nation group, said on Tuesday: “The Government should think twice before overriding both the ECHR and Human Rights Act and not rush such long-term, difficult decisions.”

However, Robert Jenrick, the immigration minister, has been pushing for the toughest version of the legislation, which would remove the right of judicial review and include “notwithstanding clauses” allowing ministers to ignore the Human Rights Act and the ECHR on asylum.

The Telegraph understands that one option being considered by Number 10 to resolve the impasse would give ministers reserve powers in the legislation.

These powers would allow them to ignore ECHR rulings if the court attempted to block the Rwanda policy, but would mean the Bill would not state that this was automatically the case. This would be in addition to powers to disapply the Human Rights Act in asylum claims.

On Tuesday, during his first monthly question time in the House of Lords, Lord Cameron, the Foreign Secretary, said Parliament should be able to pass legislation that blocked ECHR judgments that the Government disagreed with.

Citing his battle with Strasbourg over its attempts to give prisoners voting rights, he said: “They said it was absolutely essential that we legislated instantly to give prisoners the vote and I said I didn’t think that was the case, I think that should be settled by the Houses of Parliament, and the ECHR backed down.

“So that sort of flexibility may well be necessary in the future.”

However, it is understood that Mr Jenrick is continuing to hold out for the hardline approach and is fighting a rearguard action in talks over the legislation.

“The Rwanda Bill is still being worked on. Decisions haven’t been made,” said a government source.

Mr Jenrick is backed by three groups on the Right of the party – the New Conservatives, the European Research Group (ERG) and the Common Sense Group, led by Sir John Hayes, a close ally of Suella Braverman, the former home secretary.

MPs from the three groups met on Monday and Tuesday to discuss tactics if the Prime Minister steps back from the “full fat” approach.

They are expected to lay amendments to implement the toughest option, which they believe is the only way to get flights off to Rwanda.

Blower cartoon
Blower cartoon

Mark Francois, the ERG chairman, said the group’s “star chamber” of lawyers would scrutinise the legislation before MPs vote on it, adding: “They will look at the question of whether it fully respects parliamentary sovereignty and whether it contains unambiguous wording that would facilitate planes taking off to Rwanda.”

He told Mr Sunak it would be “unwise” to “bounce” Parliament into backing the legislation without giving MPs a chance to properly assess it.

However, Matt Warman, a leading member of the One Nation group, said: “Overriding the ECHR is a red line for a number of Conservatives. Protecting and reforming institutions and upholding human rights should be the cornerstone of any Conservative government.”

Stephen Hammond, another key figure in the group, said Monday’s net migration package showed the Government could be tough on immigration without leaving the ECHR. “Moderates and mainstream Conservative MPs may struggle to support a so-called full-fat deal,” he added.