Rishi Sunak’s crunch breakfast as Tory rebellion looms over Rwanda

British Prime Minister has been warned his deportation flights plan needs 'major surgery'

Conservative MP Danny Kruger exits 10 Downing Street with members of the New Conservatives following a breakfast meeting with British Prime Minister Sunak. EPA
Powered by automated translation

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hosted an emergency breakfast meeting on Tuesday with right-wing Conservative MPs, as he seeks to avert a mass rebellion against his Rwanda plan.

About 20 members of the New Conservatives attended the morning gathering in Downing Street.

Writing on X, formerly known as Twitter, after the meeting, Mr Sunak said: “Today MPs will vote on the toughest ever anti-illegal immigration legislation. This bill will allow us to control who comes into this country – not criminal gangs or foreign courts. To stop the boats, we need to back this bill.”

The Prime Minister's spokesman said he is willing to engage with MPs over the plan, but the government needs to respect Rwanda's views on the partnership.

"We're willing to listen to constructive comments from colleagues ... we believe this is a tough piece of legislation which will achieve its objectives and the public's objectives of stopping the boats," he said.

Mr Sunak has been warned the legislation requires “major surgery”, with as many as 40 MPs reportedly prepared to abstain or vote against it later on Tuesday. Graham Stuart, the Energy Security and Net Zero Minister, has flown back to the UK from the UAE, where he was attending Cop28, to take part.

The bill declares Rwanda a safe country for asylum seekers, backed by a new treaty that provides guarantees that deportees would not be returned to their home countries, after the Supreme Court ruled the plan unlawful.

It also aims to aims to end the “merry-go-round of legal challenges” by blocking “every single reason that has ever been used to prevent flights” to the African country by limiting legal actions that could prevent deportations.

Mr Sunak said under the bill, only migrants who can prove with “credible and compelling evidence” that they face a “real and imminent risk of serious and irreversible harm” can avoid being deported to Rwanda.

However, critics have said that might be much easier to do than he suggested.

The deportation deal with Rwanda is the centrepiece of Sunak’s effort to curb a surge in migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats and claiming asylum: more than 29,000 have done so this year, and more than 45,000 made the crossing in 2022.

Ministers argue deportation to Rwanda will act as a deterrent to migrants undertaking the crossing in the first place.

In a boost to the Prime Minister, One Nation moderates, which number around 100 MPs, said that they would recommend backing the bill after attending a meeting addressed by Attorney General Victoria Prentis.

But the chairman, Damian Green, also warned that its MPs would oppose any amendments that would risk the UK breaching the rule of law and its international obligations.

Ministers are expected to continue to make overtures backbenchers over the course of Tuesday, with a vote in the Commons not expected until the evening.

Speaking during a debate on the second reading of the bill, known as the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill, on Tuesday afternoon, Home Secretary James Cleverly told the Commons Parliament and the British people "support the Rwanda plan".

"In recent years, some of the government's efforts to tackle illegal migration and deport foreign national offenders have been frustrated by a seemingly endless cycle of legal challenges and rulings from domestic and foreign courts.

"Of course... this government respects court judgments, even when we disagree with them, but Parliament and the British people want an end to illegal immigration and they support the Rwanda plan."

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said minsters said the cost of the scheme could now be running into the hundreds of millions of pounds.

"More home secretaries sent to Rwanda than asylum seekers, it's about £100 million per trip. The climate minister called back from the Dubai Cop for the vote - well I guess they can say at least one flight has taken off as a result of this legislation."

Former immigration minister Robert Jenrick described the argument between his colleagues on the Tory benches over the plan as a "good faith disagreement".

He told the Commons: "There are good people on both sides of this House and certainly within my party who have disagreements about how we can make this policy work.

"But my point of view is this, when untold damage is being done to our country, when this issue will be with us for years if not decades to come, where if we do not operationalise this policy correctly, we will see the numbers rise, and we will see them rise for many years to come.

"If, God forbid, there was a Labour government, there would be a decade of small boat arrivals. I want to stop that."

No government legislation since the Shops Bill in 1986 has fallen at second reading, but if all Labour and other opposition party MPs vote against it, a revolt by 29 Tories would be enough to defeat it.

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.

A spokesman for the New Conservatives said: “More than 40 colleagues met tonight to discuss the bill.

“Every member of that discussion said the bill needs major surgery or replacement and they will be making that plain in the morning to the PM at breakfast and over the next 24 hours."

The bill allows ministers to disapply the Human Rights Act but does not go as far as overriding the European Convention on Human Rights.

The government's current assessment is that only one in 200 cases will successfully avoid being sent to Rwanda once the bill becomes law.

Rwanda's migration centre facilities – in pictures

Critics of the plan have disputed the Home Office's modelling of how effective it would be.

But Mr Sunak won support from former cabinet colleague Ben Wallace, who recently warned his party not to “wreck” the government over the issue.

The former defence secretary said that the vote should not become an “exercise of making the perfect [but unrealistic] the enemy of the good”.

Meanwhile, an asylum seeker on board the Bibby Stockholm barge, which the government uses to house migrants, has died.

The first asylum seekers were brought back to the vessel, in Dorset, in October.

The person was found dead on Tuesday morning. The man's death will be investigated "fully", said Home Secretary James Cleverly.

Further details of the incident are yet to be confirmed.

Updated: December 12, 2023, 3:00 PM