More than 20 Conservative MPs have written to Rishi Sunak urging him not to renege on Britain’s human rights commitments in his bid to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, as the party’s civil war over migration escalates.
Tory tensions on migration have run high this week, with one ally of the prime minister warning the debate over the UK’s membership of the European Convention on Human Rights would “tear the party apart”.
Sunak’s political problems have worsened since the Supreme Court blocked his flagship policy of sending “small boats” migrants to Rwanda and official figures showed net legal migration soared to 745,000 last year.
A YouGov poll this week found that 41 per cent of voters said immigration was one of the three biggest issues facing the country, up from 14 per cent in 2020. Only the economy and NHS are seen as more pressing problems.
The prime minister’s dilemma is that an attempt to sidestep legal obstacles to his Rwanda policy could trigger a battle with the courts and Tory moderates. But if Sunak is not “robust” enough, the Tory right will explode.
Tory rightwingers want Sunak to legislate to disapply some of Britain’s human rights obligations, including the ECHR, to enable asylum seekers to be put on planes to Rwanda.
But Tory insiders have told the Financial Times that “almost 30” Tory MPs have written to Sunak warning they will not support any dilution of Britain’s commitment to human rights treaties and laws.
Damian Green, chair of the moderate One Nation group of Tory MPs, said: “There are very widespread concerns across the parliamentary party that Britain must maintain its reputation as a country that believes in the rule of law.”
Sir Bob Neill, Tory chair of the Commons justice committee, said: “Many Conservative voters in traditional seats are uneasy with picking fights with the country’s institutions and want to keep to the treaties we have entered into.”
A Number 10 official said: “The objective here is a plan that gets flights off to Rwanda most quickly. No decisions have been taken.”
The latest migration row was triggered this month when the Supreme Court ruled that the Rwanda plan was unlawful because there was a risk people could be sent back to their country of origin when their lives were in danger.
The court said this breached international undertakings — including the ECHR, the UN Refugee Convention and the UN Convention against Torture — given effect in UK national law by statutes such as the Human Rights Act.
Suella Braverman, former home secretary, wrote to Sunak last month after she was sacked, saying he should write controversial “notwithstanding clauses” into new legislation intended to revive the Rwanda policy.
Such clauses would declare the legislation immune from any other laws that had “obstructed progress on this issue”, Braverman said.
Robert Jenrick, immigration minister, has been equally robust. “The public are sick of talk — they want action,” he told MPs this week. He hopes that Sunak, a longstanding political friend, will back him with tough action.
In a sign of the bitterness in the party on the issue, Braverman gave a savage speech on Wednesday night after being named “disruptor of the year” at a Spectator magazine awards ceremony.
She said the prize could equally have gone to the ECHR “for disrupting our plans to stop boats” or to Sunak for “disrupting my plans to cut the numbers and deliver a manifesto pledge”.
One cabinet minister at the event at a London five-star hotel called Braverman’s remarks “pathetic” and accused her supporters of being “wreckers” who want to destroy the party.
But Braverman’s allies have made clear they are planning further attacks on Sunak in the coming weeks unless he takes a hardline approach on migration. “We’ve got more to come,” said one.
The politics are perilous for Sunak. After the Brexit referendum, in which Leave supporters campaigned to “take back control” of the UK’s borders, public concern over migration fell sharply. Since mid-2020 it has been rising again and the anti-immigration Reform UK party appears to be benefiting. It currently polls at about 8 per cent.
“The levels of migration are far too high and I am determined to bring them back down to sustainable levels,” Sunak said this week. But he has to balance the views of two competing Tory factions.
James Cleverly, the new home secretary, has previously noted that leaving the ECHR would put Britain in the same category as Russia and Belarus. “I am not convinced it is a club we want to be part of,” he has said.
Lord David Cameron, the new foreign secretary, will also oppose Britain leaving the ECHR, according to his friend and former chancellor George Osborne, who said it would be seen as “too extreme”.
Cleverly on Tuesday met a group of mainly Tory MPs to reassure them he was working hard to revive the Rwanda scheme, including agreeing a new treaty with Kigali backed by emergency legislation.
But people at the meeting said Cleverly warned that disapplying international laws, including the ECHR, risked sparking legal delays and a fight in the House of Lords.
Sunak has argued that Channel crossings in small boats this year are already down by one-third, although that does not meet his pledge to “stop the boats”.
The prime minister is also wrestling with the question of how to bring down legal migration, an issue that has become more contentious because of the row over containing irregular movements.
Boris Johnson promised at the 2019 election to cut overall numbers. In the year to June 2019 official figures showed net migration at 224,000; the figure in 2022 was more than treble that amount.
Ministers are fearful that a significant reduction in the numbers could deprive the economy of critical workers, notably in the NHS and social care. But even some in the Treasury, long an advocate of free movement, recognise the political problem and the immediate strains caused by the population increase.
“It’s putting an immense pressure on public services,” said one Treasury insider. “People inside this building winced when the total hit 745,000. It’s clearly not sustainable.”
Sunak, as opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer showed this week, remains vulnerable to the charge that the Tories have neither “stopped the boats” nor cut overall net migration as they promised.
With a general elected expected next year, time is fast running out to deliver on either.