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PM Rishi Sunak’s high-stakes battle over controversial Rwanda asylum plan

file photo: british home secretary cleverly visit to rwanda
Home Secretary James Cleverly during his visit to Kigali, Rwanda, to sign the new treaty Ben Birchall/Pool via REUTERS

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faces the biggest parliamentary test of his premiership on Tuesday when lawmakers vote on his divisive plan to send asylum seekers to live in Rwanda.

The UK Supreme Court ruled last month that Rwanda was an unsafe place to send those arriving in small boats on England’s southern coast, and that the policy would breach British and international law.

In response, Sunak has agreed a new treaty with Rwanda and brought forward emergency legislation to override domestic and international human rights law.

The move has deeply divided his party, alienating both moderates, who are worried about Britain breaching its human rights obligations, and right-wing politicians, who contend it does not go far enough.

“We believe the best solution here is we should pause the legislation today, we should come back with a new bill,” one Conservative lawmaker on the right of the party, Simon Clarke, told BBC Radio.

In power for 13 years and trailing the opposition Labour Party by around 20 points ahead of an election expected next year, Sunak’s Conservatives have fractured along multiple lines and lost much of their discipline.

Lawmakers on the right, who have not said whether they will abstain or vote against the bill, want to ban asylum seekers from having any legal means to appeal against deportation.

Michael Tomlinson, the junior minister responsible for policy on illegal migration, said that would not fit with British values.

“Not even during the Second World War did we shut out claims going to court,” he told BBC Radio.

Governments around the world are grappling with rising migration levels, and some are following the British plan to see if it will work. French lawmakers rejected their immigration bill last night, in a blow to President Emmanuel Macron.

CRUCIAL VOTE

The British parliament will hold its first vote on the law on Tuesday evening. It would only take about 30 Conservative members of parliament to vote with opposition parties to defeat the bill.

Even if it passes, Sunak is likely to face attempts to toughen it up with amendments at later stages, as well as opposition in the House of Lords, the unelected upper chamber.

Defeat would be a huge embarrassment for Sunak – no government has lost a vote at this early stage in the parliamentary process since 1986 – and it would severely weaken his authority over his party.

He hosted some lawmakers on the party’s right wing for breakfast on Tuesday in a last ditch attempt to convince them to back the bill, after more centrist lawmakers said they would back it as long as the legislation is not toughened up further.

Sunakis Britain’s fifth Conservative prime minister in seven years after the vote to leave the European Union polarised the country’s politics, leading to repeated bouts of instability.

The battle has echoes of parliamentary showdowns over Brexit from 2017-19, when then Prime Minister Theresa May suffered repeated defeats following rebellions by large numbers of Conservative politicians, eventually leading to her exit.

Sunak has made stopping boat-arrivals one of his biggest priorities. About 29,000 asylum seekers have arrived this year – down around one-third compared with last year.

The vast majority of immigrants enter legally through other means. But the sight of small inflatable dinghies crossing the Channel remains a highly visible symbol of the government’s failure to control Britain’s borders – a key promise of Brexit campaigners.

The Conservatives have repeatedly failed to meet targets to reduce immigration, which has soared even after Brexit stripped EU citizens of the right of free movement, with net immigration reaching 745,000 last year.

Keir Starmer, the opposition Labour leader, has described the Rwanda policy as an “expensive gimmick” that has prevented the government from focusing on more practical measures. He said he would revoke the bill if he got into power.

Britain has already paid 240 million pounds ($300 million) to Rwanda even though no one has yet been sent there. Even if the programme gets off the ground, Rwanda would have the capacity to settle only hundreds of refugees from Britain at a time.

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