How Rishi Sunak came back from defeat with Rwanda Plan B

Prime Minister responds to Supreme Court blow by announcing emergency legislation

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks in Downing Street on November 15. EPA
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Rishi Sunak attempted to turn around failure on Wednesday by announcing emergency legislation that would resuscitate Britain’s Rwanda deportation plan.

The day had started well for the Prime Minister as news broke that inflation had more than halved to 4.6 per cent – finally one of his core five pledges for the year had been fulfilled.

And, so far at least, David Cameron’s appointment as foreign secretary had been well received across much of the party and in Conservative-supporting newspapers.

Mr Sunak's decision to make a firm break with the hardline Tory right and “tack to the centre” with his cabinet reshuffle had offered a faint glimmer of hope for next year’s election.

But the Supreme Court’s decision on deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda brought his optimism to a juddering halt.

The government’s plan to transport thousands of failed asylum seekers to the central African state was firmly rejected by the five judges.

At least the soundings had suggested the government was going to be defeated by the judges, giving the Prime Minister time to prepare.

By Wednesday evening a firm response was announced: introducing “extraordinary emergency legislation” with a vote in parliament that he gambled would mean the first Rwanda flights would start next spring.

The move followed the judges' ruling that Rwanda was not deemed a safe country for asylum seekers as appeals would not be reliable or fair, and there were “substantial grounds” to believe people could be sent back to unsafe countries.

While they found that the principle of deportations to a third country was not unlawful they pointedly remarked that there were “other international treaties which also prohibit the return of asylum seekers”.

This undercut the hardliner’s argument for leaving the European Court of Human Rights, which Britain had helped set up.

The mood in Westminster was curious. Right-wing MPs told The National they wanted more time to study the report in detail before commenting, suggesting they had indeed been floored.

One even attempted to raise the over-used Tory backbench ruse of a leadership challenge by suggesting six letters of no confidence in Mr Sunak had been submitted. It would require 54 to trigger a vote and that appears unlikely.

A reserved backbench mood greeted Mr Sunak when he took his place in the House of Commons for Prime Minister’s Questions to a low key cheer.

It was time for deft political dancing. Aware that ditching Rwanda in its entirety could lead to open rebellion, he suggested the government would fight on.

“I’m prepared to revisit our domestic legal framework,” he said, throwing some political red meat to the right by hinting at a reworking of the ECHR challenge without any firm commitment.

He shook off Labour leader Keir Starmer’s jibe that “the central pillar of his government has crumpled beneath him”, admonishing the opposition’s lack of ideas to tackle small boats crossing the Channel.

Afterwards in a briefing, the Prime Minister’s spokesman suggested that revisiting the treaty with Rwanda this would “address the concerns raised by the court” but there was “no silver bullet” for resolving the small boats issue that saw 46,000 people arrive last year and 27,000 so far this year.

However, it seems that Mr Sunak did have an answer to the ruling when, at a press conference later in Downing Street, he said he would introduce emergency legislation that he vowed would not be deterred by the courts.

A new international treaty with Rwanda would “provide a guarantee in law” that those who are relocated from the UK “will be protected against removal from Rwanda”, he told journalists.

“It will make clear that we will bring anyone back if ordered to do so by a court.”

The treaty would be ratified without delay. He was also taking the “extraordinary step of introducing emergency legislation” which would “enable parliament to confirm that with our new treaty, Rwanda is safe”.

“It will ensure that people cannot further delay flights by bringing systemic challenges in our domestic court and stop our policy being repeatedly blocked,” he vowed.

To a great extent the judges have removed the floor from under the Rwanda protagonists’ feet by declaring that even if Britain did leave the ECHR there were other treaties the country was obliged to follow in taking refugees.

The question does arise whether Mr Sunak was really 100 per cent behind the Rwanda policy, something he had inherited from the bluster of Boris Johnson’s premiership.

But the problem of small boats and deterring those willing to cross the world’s busiest shipping lane, the English Channel, for a better life is not going to be resolved soon.

Migrants will continue to deal with dangerous seas and criminals to enter Europe and Britain.

Updated: November 16, 2023, 9:54 AM