The Controversial Rwanda Bill Sparks Debate and Tory Rebellion in the Commons

Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, breathed a sigh of relief as he narrowly avoided a Tory rebellion over his controversial Rwanda bill in a crunch vote in the Commons. The bill, which aims to revive the stalled £290m deportation scheme after being ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court, received the support of MPs at its second reading with a majority of 43. This outcome will undoubtedly be a relief to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who spent the day engaging in crisis talks with various factions of the Tory right to ensure their backing for the bill.

While the bill managed to secure parliamentary approval at this stage, it is evident that the battle is far from over. The division list revealed that 37 Tory MPs abstained, but none voted against the bill. This is surprising considering the overwhelming criticism of the legislation in recent days, which even led to the resignation of former immigration minister Robert Jenrick, who believed it was not tough enough. However, the fact that hardliners within the party abstained suggests that they may demand amendments in the future, such as blocking interference from foreign courts. Conversely, moderates from the opposite wing of the party have indicated that they will not support such amendments. This sets the stage for another potential battle when the bill returns to parliament.

At its core, the bill seeks to declare Rwanda as a safe country to send asylum seekers and prevent flights from being grounded due to legal reasons. It grants ministers the power to disapply sections of the UK’s Human Rights Act, although it does not extend to the European Convention on Human Rights, which some right-wing Tories are advocating for. Critics argue that the bill pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable and raises concerns about meeting international obligations and adhering to the rule of law.

While Rishi Sunak may have secured a temporary victory, he should be prepared for a potentially challenging battle in January. Downing Street has stated a willingness to consider proposed changes from MPs at a later stage, but Home Secretary James Cleverly cautioned that the legislation is already close to its limits. The One Nation caucus, a group of moderate MPs, has also expressed reservations about supporting the bill if it becomes more hardline. Chairman Damien Green emphasized the importance of proceeding “unamended” and only accepting “very minor” changes. Moreover, Rwanda has warned that it may withdraw from the treaty if the UK breaches its “international obligations.”

Despite the anticipation of future conflicts, ministers found solace in the outcome of the vote. With a working majority of 56, it would have required a revolt by 29 Tory MPs or 57 abstentions to defeat the bill at its first Commons hurdle. This has not happened to a piece of legislation since 1986. Although there were initial nerves in Downing Street, the final result proved more comfortable than initially feared. Prime Minister Johnson expressed his commitment to making the bill law, with the goal of resuming flights to Rwanda and curbing illegal immigration.

The victory may have provided a temporary respite for the government, but the rift within the Conservative Party remains evident. The Labour Party seized on the situation, proclaiming that the “Conservatives’ civil war is continuing.” Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper criticized Rishi Sunak’s leadership, stating that the Tory psychodrama is dragging on into the New Year. She also pointed to the escalating costs of the failing Rwanda scheme, amounting to £400m of taxpayers’ money, without a single deportee being sent. The scheme is projected to cover less than 1% of those arriving in the UK. Cooper called for the government to scrap the scheme and redirect the funds towards cracking down on criminal gangs and reducing the asylum backlog, promising to do so if Labour wins the next election.

The Rwanda bill has caused significant divisions within the Conservative Party, with an ongoing struggle between hardliners and moderates. While Rishi Sunak managed to avoid a rebellion in the Commons, the fight is not over, as amendments and demands for a more hardline approach loom in the near future. The bill’s provisions concerning Rwanda as a safe country and the ability to disapply sections of the Human Rights Act have sparked controversy and concerns about meeting international obligations. As the bill progresses, both the government and its critics will need to navigate these challenges and determine the best course of action for addressing the complex issue of asylum seekers and deportation.


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