Rishi Sunak’s authority is under heightened threat after rebel MPs from the Tory right urged him to abandon his beleaguered Rwanda Bill, insisting it does not go far enough to block legal setbacks.
European Research Group chairman Mark Francois called on the Prime Minister to “pull” the legislation after lawyers convened by the caucus deemed it an “incomplete” solution to problems posed by small boat asylum claims.
The Bill, which Mr Sunak hopes will revive the stalled scheme to deport people crossing the English Channel to Kigali, would need “very significant amendments” to work, the so-called “star chamber” of legal advisers concluded.
Speaking outside Parliament after a summit of hardline Brexiteers from the ERG along with other camps on the Tory right, Mr Francois said: “It might be better to start again with a fresh Bill that is written on a different basis.”
Asked whether the proposal risked delaying the £290 million scheme even further, he told the PA news agency: “With the right will and a bit of overtime, that can be done comparatively quickly.
“That is infinitely preferable to powering on with a piece of legislation which at the end of the day is not fit for purpose.”
He refused to say whether he still had confidence in the Prime Minister, whose leadership is on the line if the Bill fails to gain enough support from Tory MPs.
Small boat arrivals are down by a third.
But we need to go further.
The legislation we are introducing is another essential part of our plan to deter illegal migrants and stop the boats.
— UK Prime Minister (@10DowningStreet) December 7, 2023
Number 10 insisted the legislation would go to a crunch vote as planned on Tuesday despite calls for the Bill to be withdrawn, but said it would continue to “listen carefully” to the views expressed by backbenchers.
Mr Sunak will hope to quell unrest when he holds a breakfast meeting with members of the New Conservative group – among those on the right aligned with the criticism of the ERG – in Downing Street ahead of Cabinet on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, new migration minister Michael Tomlinson is giving a briefing to MPs on the legislation as the Government battles to unite a bitterly divided party.
In its assessment, the star chamber said: “The Prime Minister may well be right when he claims that this is the ‘toughest piece of migration legislation ever put forward by a UK Government’, but we do not believe that it goes far enough to deliver the policy as intended.”
They warned that the legislation would not prevent personal claims against being sent to Rwanda, citing a clause which makes limited allowances for cases made on the grounds that the country is not safe for a particular person despite being deemed generally safe.
A leading Tory rebel said: “The Government is choosing to ignore advice from senior lawyers that there are good legal arguments for blocking off individual claims, and all Strasbourg Rule 39 injunctions.
“Migrants can still make individual claims but these would continue in Rwanda. The Government should ensure that only those who are under 18 or medically unfit to fly are exempt from removal.
“It’s open to Parliament to block or restrict individual legal challenges, and the courts will uphold this.”
The ERG’s lawyers also complained that the scope of the Bill to disapply elements of human rights law was “very narrow” and they argued it did not go far enough to address the risk of European judges blocking the plan.
“Were the Strasbourg court to decide that Rwanda is unsafe in general, it is unclear whether the Bill would be effective such that UK courts would be required to ignore that judgment,” the lawyers said.
Former home secretary Suella Braverman was among the MPs from the Tory right gathered in Parliament’s Portcullis House to hear the star chamber’s verdict.
There was no decision on how the groups should vote on Tuesday, although the ERG is set to have a further meeting on Monday evening along with members of the Common Sense Group and New Conservatives Group of Tory MPs.
Former immigration minister Robert Jenrick – who resigned in protest at the legislation – is expected to address them.
In a rare move intended to win over critics, the Government produced a summary of its own legal advice in support of the scheme on Monday.
The document concludes that there is a “clear lawful basis on which a responsible government may proceed” with a “novel and contentious policy.
Mr Sunak has tried to find a middle ground in response to the Supreme Court ruling that his plan to send asylum seekers who arrive in the UK on small boats is unlawful.
His Bill allows ministers to disapply the Human Rights Act but does not go as far as overriding the European Convention on Human Rights.
But in a sign of the scale of difficulty facing Mr Sunak in winning over Tory rebels, the moderate One Nation Conservatives will hold a separate evening meeting in Parliament to discuss whether the Prime Minister’s plan goes too far.
Mr Sunak has been unable to focus fully on seeking to unite his fractured party as he spent Monday giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry about his time as chancellor.
But top ministers, including Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron, have been engaging with MPs over the weekend in order to see off any rebellion over the grounded plan.
Defence Secretary Grant Shapps this morning insisted it would prevent the vast majority of attempts to use the courts to avoid being sent to the African nation.
He said the Government’s current assessment is that only one in 200 cases will pass through once the Bill becomes law, following claims the analysis dated back to March.
But critics of the plan disputed the Home Office’s modelling of how effective it would be.
A senior Tory source said: “This is an outdated and analytically flawed model – from March – which came before defeats in the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court. Number 10 don’t realise the world has changed and that’s their fundamental problem.
“There was never any modelling done for the new Rwanda Bill because they failed to plan. Even this old, optimistic model says it could take more than two months to remove a migrant. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious.”
The Bill will have its first Commons test on Tuesday at the second reading stage.
No Government legislation since 1986 has fallen at this hurdle, but with Labour and other opposition parties expected to vote against it, a revolt by just 28 MPs could wipe out the Conservative majority.
Tories with concerns could instead choose to abstain or back the legislation at this stage but then seek to toughen it up – or water it down, depending on their views – as it progresses through the Commons.
Mr Shapps said he is “sure” it will get through the Commons, but acknowledged it could face trouble in the Lords, where the Government lacks a majority and cannot control the timetable in the same way.
The Government has insisted the Rwanda scheme, through which asylum seekers in the UK would be deported to Kigali, is a key part of Mr Sunak’s plan to “stop the boats” by acting as a deterrent to people seeking to cross the Channel.
But the Home Office has earmarked at least £700 million to manage the arrival of migrants on small boats until 2030, with the option of extending the contracts until 2034, according to commercial plans highlighted by the BBC.
The money will be spent running the Western Jet Foil facility in Dover and the reception centre at the former Manston airfield in Kent.