Pyrrhic Victory? Sunak Survives Tory Rebellion Against Flagship Immigration Law But Bill Faces Showdown Next Month

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaves Dorland House in London after giving evidence to the UK
Jordan Pettitt/PA Images via Getty Images

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak survived by the skin of his teeth in a critical vote on flagship immigration legislation on Tuesday evening as Tory rebels decided to abstain from voting rather than outright opposing the Rwanda Bill. Yet, the government is not out of the woods as immigration hardliners have demanded amendments to the bill before the next reading.

The Rwanda Bill, to declare the East African nation a safe country to send illegal migrants, passed its second reading by a margin of 44 in the House of Commons on Tuesday evening, with 313 voting in favour and 269 against. However, the victory for Sunak may be short-lived as a group of around 40 Conservative MPs abstained from the vote and vowed to vote against the bill if major amendments are not put in place.

Mark Francois, the head of the European Research Group of Brexiteer MPs, said that the rebels would seek to introduce amendments to the legislation in the committee phase. However, Francois said that if the bill was still insufficient, the rebels would vote against the legislation at the third reading of the bill. If their numbers hold, they would likely be able to defeat the government.

“We will aim to table amendments which would – we hope if accepted – materially improve the bill and remove some of its weaknesses,” Francois said.

The decision by Tory rebels to abstain rather than vote against the bill has given Prime Minister Rishi Sunak a slight reprieve, as a large number of his own party voting against his legislation would have thrown his ability to continue to lead the party into doubt. However, the victory on Tuesday evening will likely only provide short-term relief for the government, as the final battle over the bill will be waged again at the third reading in January.

The legislation proposed by the prime minister’s government would see the parliament officially declare that Rwanda is a “safe country” to send illegal migrants to have their asylum claims processed offshore rather than putting them up in hotels across the country. The bill would therefore attempt to put the government’s scheme on a more solid legal footing after the Supreme Court ruled against the policy last month, citing safety concerns.

However, efforts to pass the bill were thrown into doubt last week after Robert Jenrick resigned as the government’s immigration minister over what he believes are shortcomings within the legislation, principally its failure to clamp down on the ability of illegal migrants to make individual legal appeals over their removal to Rwanda, which he argued would continue to mire efforts to conduct removals at scale in legal muck.

Speaking from the House of Commons on Tuesday ahead of the vote, Jenrick warned that the legislation as currently written would doom the country to years more of illegal migrants crossing the English Channel.

“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.”

Jenrick was joined by the leader of the New Conservatives faction in the Commons, Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger, who wrote in The Telegraph that they “can’t support the bill tonight”.

“Our promise to ‘Take Back Control’ resulted in an 80-seat majority, with which we left the European Union and regained, at least in principle, the right to make our own laws. But, despite repeated attempts, our inability to solve the issue of ‘small boats’ – specifically the failure to deter illegal immigration – shows that we have yet to take back control of our borders.

“We sincerely hope the Government comes forward with amendments that will address the practical limitations of the Bill and the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. It is in the best interests of our country to resolve these issues once and for all,” they added.

The Tory rebels are not alone in not being convinced by the legislation, with YouGov finding that just one per cent of the public believe that the proposed legislation would actually stop the migrant boats. The poll also found that just two per cent of Conservative voters had faith in the bill to stop the boats.

Nigel Farage also spoke out against the legislation, branding the bill as the new dividing “Brexit line” within the Conservative Party. The Brexit boss, whom many have tipped as a potential next leader of the Tories, said that the “pathetic Rwanda plan” is doomed to fail to achieve its aims regardless if the government refuses to leave the European Court of Human Rights, which the country is still bound by given that it is technically a separate body from the EU and therefore Britain’s membership was unaffected by Brexit.

The European court initially threw the Rwanda policy into chaos last summer after it controversially stepped in to block a migrant removal flight from the UK to the East African country.

“Will the backbenchers have the guts to vote it down? Well normally they march up to the top of the hill and they march back down again. Most of them are a pretty spineless bunch. I hope that I’m proved wrong,” Farage told GB News.

“What is for certain is that Sunak is on course to lead the Conservative Party to their worst election result in modern times and frankly, I think they deserve pretty much everything that’s coming to them.”

While the government has been thrust into turmoil over illegal immigration, the Tories have made little signals of desire to lower the far-larger numbers coming to the country legally. Despite promising to lower immigration following Brexit to the public, the exact opposite has occurred, with net migration hitting record highs both of the last two years. The failures of the government to deliver on migration are seen as one of the principle reasons for the Conservative Party’s dire position in the polls, trailing the left-wing Labour Party of Sir Keir Starmer by over 20 points.

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