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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 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 the prime minister’s Safety of Rwanda bill provided only “a partial and incomplete solution” to preventing legal challenges to efforts to deport 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 him 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 Conservatives, Labour and the Scottish National party have all pulled 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 had a trip to the Caribbean 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.
Downing Street has launched an operation to win over rebels, taking the rare step of publishing a summary of official legal opinion that the legislation that designates Rwanda “safe” is “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.”
However, if the legislation passes this Commons hurdle on Tuesday — it is extremely rare for a government to lose a so-called “second reading” on the principle of a bill — the parliamentary battle will only just be starting.
The moderate One Nation Tory group, which has 106 members, 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.
If Sunak wins Tuesday’s vote, he should easily crush any future rightwing amendments to the bill, which most of his MPs and Labour would oppose, but the impression of dissent and disunity would be highly damaging.
The nuclear option for MPs on the Tory right 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, if they felt that it would be better to have no legislation at all. Such a defeat would be crushing for Sunak.
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.