© Reuters. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during a press conference in the Downing Street Briefing Room, in London, Britain December 7, 2023. James Manning/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
By Andrew MacAskill, Michael Holden and Alistair Smout
LONDON (Reuters) -British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak sought to rally support from his divided lawmakers on Tuesday before he faced a crunch parliamentary vote on his flagship migration policy of sending asylum seekers who arrive illegally in Britain to Rwanda.
Sunak is seeking to revive his plan after the UK Supreme Court ruled last month that it would breach British and international law to send those arriving in small boats on England’s southern coast to Rwanda as it was an unsafe place.
He has since agreed a new treaty with Rwanda and brought forward emergency legislation to override domestic and international human rights law which would stop deportations.
But the move has deeply divided his Conservative Party, alienating both moderates, who are worried about Britain breaching its human rights obligations, and those on the right wing who contend it does not go far enough. Defeat in Tuesday’s vote could put his premiership in jeopardy.
“I regret we have got an unsatisfactory bill,” Conservative lawmaker Danny Kruger told parliament. “I can’t undertake to support it tonight.”
In power for 13 years and trailing the opposition Labour Party by around 20 points with an election expected next year, Sunak’s Conservatives have fractured along multiple lines and lost much of their discipline.
Lawmakers on the right, who are weighing whether to abstain or vote against the bill, want to ban asylum seekers from having any legal means to appeal against deportation, after the European Court of Human Rights blocked the first Rwandan flight last year.
Opening the parliamentary debate on the bill, Home Secretary James Cleverly said the legislation was “pushing at the edge of the envelope” on international law and could go no further.
“Parliament and the British people want an end to illegal immigration and they support the Rwanda plan,” he said.
Governments around the world are also closely watching the policy to see if it will work as they too grapple with rising migration levels. French lawmakers rejected their immigration bill last night, in a blow to President Emmanuel Macron.
The British parliament will hold its first vote on the emergency law on Tuesday evening, and it would only take about 30 Conservative lawmakers to vote with opposition parties for the government to lose.
Defeat would be a huge embarrassment for Sunak – no government has lost a vote at this early stage in the parliamentary process since 1986. It would severely weaken his authority and raise serious questions about his leadership, given that he has staked so much on the policy.
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.
Such is the government concern that Britain’s climate minister was recalled to London from the COP28 summit in Dubai to cast a vote in parliament.
Sunak also met Conservative lawmakers throughout the day in an effort to convince them to back the bill. Centrist lawmakers have said they will support it as long as the law is not further toughened up in the legislative process.
Those who met Sunak said the prime minister had hinted the bill could be amended at a later stage.
Sunak is Britain’s fifth Conservative prime minister in seven years after the vote to leave the European Union polarised 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.
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 legal net immigration reaching 745,000 last year.
About 29,000 asylum seekers have arrived this year via boats – down around one-third compared with last year – 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.
Hours before the vote, a refugee charity reported that an asylum seeker had died on a barge off the south coast which houses migrants waiting for a decision on their applications.
Keir Starmer, the opposition Labour leader, promised his party would revoke the policy if he gets into power.
“It’ll go through tonight, I don’t doubt, with a lot of shouting and screaming but in the end it’ll go through,” he said, but added Sunak should call an election should he lose.
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 migrants from Britain at a time.
($1 = 0.7971 pounds)