Rishi Sunak’s government was plunged into further crisis when the immigration minister quit just hours after the prime minister tabled a bill to save his Rwanda deportation policy.
Robert Jenrick stood down after it was revealed that the legislation did not allow the government to override the international laws that have stopped the government sending asylum seekers to central Africa.
In a letter published on X, the MP for Newark said Sunak’s bill was “a triumph of hope over experience” and will mean that the policy will be challenged again in the courts.
Jenrick’s resignation will be seen as a move to position himself as the head of the growing rightwing rebellion aimed at ensuring that the UK can act unilaterally and send flights to Kigali.
It comes just weeks after the former home secretary Suella Braverman was sacked and accused Sunak of “wishful thinking” to “avoid having to make hard choices” on immigration.
Jenrick, seen until recently as a close political ally of Sunak’s, wrote: “I am unable to take the currently proposed legislation through the Commons as I do not believe it provides us with the best possible chance of success.
“A bill of the kind you are proposing is a triumph of hope over experience. The stakes for the country are too high for us not to pursue the stronger protections required to end the merry-go-round of legal challenges which risk paralysing the scheme and negating its intended deterrent,” he said.
The emergency bill will give ministers the power to ignore some judgments that come from Strasbourg while stopping short of leaving or “disapplying” the European convention on human rights in its entirety.
Critics from the Conservative right have said that such a move raises the possibility that individual legal challenges will still be able stop planes taking off for Rwanda.
Sunak thanked Jenrick for his efforts, but said his resignation was “disappointing”, telling him in a letter he fears it was “based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation”.
He said the bill was “the toughest piece of legislation ever put forward by a UK government” but ignoring the courts entirely would have meant Rwanda pulling out of the scheme. “There would be no point in passing a law that would leave us with nowhere to send people to.”
Confirmation of Jenrick’s resignation came earlier on Wednesday night as Cleverly presented the bill to MPs alongside Sunak but without Jenrick.
The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, said: “We’ve got a home secretary making the statement, but the rumours are that the immigration minister has resigned. Where is he? Perhaps he can make that the first question that he answers – whether he still has an immigration minister in place.
“They’ve got open warfare among their backbenches, the starting gun fired on the next leadership election, and once again the whole country paying the price for this chaos.”
Cleverly initially declined to answer several requests for an explanation, but was then informed that the home office minister, Laura Farris, had confirmed Jenrick’s resignation on LBC.
The Rwanda (asylum and immigration) bill stopped short of leaving the convention and does not include “notwithstanding clauses” which would allow ministers to ignore the ECHR and other international treaties in the area of asylum.
The legislation, which must be voted on by parliament, gives ministers the powers to disregard sections of the Human Rights Act. Cleverly has admitted that he cannot confirm that the legislation is compliant with Britain’s obligations under the ECHR.
Last night, several Tory MPs indicated that they were deeply unhappy with the bill. A source close to Braverman said the bill was “fatally flawed”.
“The prime minister has kept the ability for every single illegal migrant to make individual human rights claims against their removal and to then appeal those claims if they don’t succeed at first. It is fatally flawed.
“It will be bogged down in the courts for months and months. And it won’t stop the boats. It is a further betrayal of Tory voters and the decent patriotic majority who want to see this insanity brought to an end,” the source said.
Other rightwing Tory MPs were unhappy that the bill does not disapply the ECHR and believe that each asylum seeker could seek an injunction to stop being removed on a flight. “I can’t see how we’ve prevented individual legal challenges,” said one MP.
In the Commons, the former minister Sir John Hayes, an ally of Braverman’s, told the Commons: “The new home secretary will of course be aware and welcome the fact that he will be … judged by the effectiveness of this legislation for weeks and months and years, perhaps decades even.”
Mark Francois, the former defence minister, said the home secretary had “pointedly ducked” questions about individual appeals.
“As every person we would seek to send to Rwanda is an individual, if under this legislation those people could continue to appeal and appeal in order to delay being put on a flight, what’s the point of the bill?”
Cleverly, in his reply, said: “An appeal process is an important part of a new legal process. It will not preclude people from being sent to Rwanda on this scheme.”
The former home secretary Priti Patel asked for details of any assessments made “as to whether the disapplication of the Human Rights Act and other laws are robust and will stand up to the legal challenges”.
Braverman, the previous home secretary, had earlier made a personal statement to MPs saying that the Tories faced “electoral oblivion” unless ministers blocked all domestic and international laws used to halt deportation flights.
Sunak, after the bill had been published but before Jenrick’s resignation had been confirmed, met members of the 1922 Committee and told MPs that they must “unite or die” over the bill.
He also claimed that the UK government could not go further and disapply the ECHR because the Rwandan government had insisted that it must stay within international laws, sources said.
In a statement issued by the Rwandan government, Vincent Biruta, the minister of foreign affairs, said Kigali would have walked away from the deal if it had meant breaking the law. “Without lawful behaviour by the UK, Rwanda would not be able to continue with the Migration and Economic Development Partnership,” he said.
No 10 had been considering two options in the bill. The first, the so-called “semi-skimmed” option, aimed to disapply only the UK’s Human Rights Act in asylum claims. However, this would not prevent challenges by individual migrants, sources said.
The second, “full-fat” option removed the right of judicial review and included “notwithstanding clauses”, which would allow ministers to ignore the ECHR and other international treaties in the area of asylum.
It was the second part of a strategy by the government to get its Rwanda policy back on track following last month’s supreme court judgment that ruled the policy unlawful.
The treaty, signed by Cleverly in Kigali on Tuesday, guarantees that migrants relocated from the UK to Rwanda will not be sent back to their home country.
In a statement, Sunak said: “Through this new landmark emergency legislation, we will control our borders, deter people taking perilous journeys across the Channel, and end the continuous legal challenges filling our courts.
“And we will disapply sections of the Human Rights Act from the key parts of the bill, specifically in the case of Rwanda, to ensure our plan cannot be stopped.”
The bill will be introduced to the Commons on Thursday, and a substantive debate will happen next week.
Pat McFadden, Labour’s national campaign coordinator, responding to Jenrick’s resignation, said: “This latest chaotic chapter demonstrates why the country is ready for change. And Keir Starmer’s changed Labour party stands ready.
“The British people deserve a government that will fix the issues that matter to working people, not a Tory circus of gimmicks and leadership posturing.”