Unlock the Editor’s Digest for free
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Rishi Sunak will on Tuesday seek to face down rightwing Tory rebels by pushing ahead with his controversial Rwanda bill, despite calls for him to pulp the legislation and come back with a more robust plan.
Downing Street insiders said they were confident that MPs would back the bill in principle in its first House of Commons vote, but opposition to the measure from some Tories is hardening.
Lawyers advising rightwing MPs claimed that the prime minister’s Safety of Rwanda bill provided only “a partial and incomplete solution” to preventing legal challenges to efforts to remove migrants to Rwanda.
A so-called “Star Chamber” of lawyers acting for the rightwing European Research Group criticised the bill for not restricting appeals from asylum seekers sent to Rwanda based on their individual circumstances.
Mark Francois, chair of the ERG, said he hoped Sunak would “pull the legislation and come back with something that is fit for purpose”, claiming the bill had “so many holes in it”.
But James Cleverly, the home secretary, said the government was “determined to get it through”. One MP who attended a meeting with Cleverly on Monday said: “It’s not clear at this stage if they’ll win.”
In a sign that the vote could go down to the wire, the Conservative, Labour and the Scottish National parties have all withdrawn permission for their MPs to be away from the Commons on Tuesday. Members of the foreign affairs committee were told to cut short a visit to the Middle East and fly back from Qatar to make the vote, while the international development committee’s trip to the Caribbean was cancelled, according to officials.
Sunak will on Tuesday have breakfast with a number of rightwing Conservative MPs whom he hopes to cajole into the government side of the division lobbies later in the day.
About 40 rightwingers met on Monday night, but declined to confirm publicly how they planned to vote. According to those inside the room, however, some MPs said during the meeting that they would vote against the bill.
Afterwards a spokesperson for the New Conservatives, one of the five rightwing factions, said of the meeting: “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 moderate One Nation Tory group, which has 106 members, also met on Monday night and reluctantly agreed to back the legislation, which they regard as too tough.
“We have taken the decision that the most important thing at this stage is to support the bill despite our real concerns,” said Damian Green, chair of the group. But he warned Sunak not to bow to pressure to toughen it up.
“We strongly urge the government to stand firm against any attempt to amend the bill in a way that would make it unacceptable to those who believe that support for the rule of law is a basic Conservative principle,” he said.
Downing Street has launched a push to win over rebels, taking the rare step of publishing a summary of official legal opinion that finds the legislation designating Rwanda “safe” to be “tough but fair and lawful”.
The legal opinion defends the decision to let migrants bring individual appeals to court, making the point that “even in wartime, the UK has maintained access to the courts”.
An ally of Sunak made it clear that while ministers were listening to critics and wanted to reassure them that the bill was sufficiently tough, there was no question of any significant rewrite of the legislation.
“We can try to give colleagues greater confidence but you can’t move greatly in either direction,” the ally said. “It is as tough as it can be within the limits of international law.”
If the legislation passes this Commons hurdle on Tuesday, the parliamentary battle will only just be starting.
A win for Sunak in Tuesday’s vote — and it is extremely rare for a government to lose a so-called “second reading” on the principle of a bill — would mean he should easily crush any future rightwing amendments to the bill, changes that most of his MPs and Labours’ would oppose.
But the impression of dissent and disunity would be highly damaging.
The nuclear option for MPs on the Tory right, if they felt it would be better to have no legislation at all, would be to vote with Labour against the bill at its Commons third reading, the final debate before it is sent to the House of Lords. Such a defeat would be crushing for Sunak.
And even if the bill passes its Commons stages, it is likely to become bogged down in the upper house, with Labour claiming the plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda will never come to fruition.