Rishi Sunak is battling to resuscitate his plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, a frantic bid to stave off a right-wing rebellion that poses a serious threat to his control over the governing UK Conservative Party.
During a tense session of Parliament and at a hastily arranged press conference on Wednesday, Sunak said he is not giving up on his Rwanda plan even after the Supreme Court unanimously ruled it illegal on the grounds that asylum seekers risked being re-deported and face persecution in their home countries.
Sunak instead promised a new treaty with Rwanda that would satisfy the court by guaranteeing asylum seekers’ safety, as well as legislation to declare the east African nation a “safe” country—a move he said would prevent court challenges. But in words clearly aimed at the restless right of his party, the premier also pledged to “revisit” the UK’s international relationships if they meant deportation flights could not go ahead.
The defiant approach underscores the level of political danger Sunak is facing. The court’s decision to block the cornerstone of his pledge to “stop the boats”—one of five he’s asked voters to judge him by ahead of a general election expected next year—came after he fired his Home Secretary Suella Braverman, a standard-bearer for his party’s right wing, on Monday. That set off a clash with Tory lawmakers, some of whom are plotting to remove him as leader.
The problem for Sunak as he tries to quell the anger is that it’s unclear whether a new treaty with Rwanda will satisfy the courts, even if new legislation gives it parliamentary backing. The Supreme Court listed serious deficiencies in the Rwandan asylum system and found that the government’s policy would be in breach of the UK’s international agreements.
Some right-wing Tories welcomed Sunak’s announcement, describing it as bolder than expected and predicting it would buy him time. Conservative MP Jonathan Gullis told Times Radio that legislation is “entirely the right thing to do,” though he also warned “the devil will be in the detail.”
But others said it changed nothing and left Sunak’s immigration policy in tatters. An ally of Braverman said a new treaty with Rwanda would still end up in a legal quagmire, meaning months more delay. They also predicted that Sunak would not risk taking the step many Tories are demanding, to take the UK out of the European Convention of Human Rights or the UN Refugee convention.
That was viewed was underscored by Sunak himself at the press conference when he said he saw the proposed treaty as bringing his Rwanda plan in line with the convention, just moments after he had issued his pledge not to let any foreign courts get in his way. His decision to recall former premier David Cameron, seen as on the center-right, has not helped him persuade critics.
On Thursday, Braverman’s replacement as home secretary, James Cleverly, said the government’s preference is to stay in the ECHR and that he doesn’t think leaving it would be necessary for Rwanda flights to happen. “We don’t think we are going to need to. We don’t think that is a point that will come up,” he told Sky News during the government’s morning broadcast round.
It’s language that points to Sunak trying to show the Tory right he’s willing to meet their demands—and to get credit for that—even as ministers try to ensure the issue never comes to a head.
But Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger, two MPs in the self-described New Conservatives group, said Sunak’s proposed new law does not go far enough and called on him to fully dis-apply the UK’s international commitments. “We have no time left” for anything else, they said in a statement.
Speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss their private views, some of Sunak’s own officials told Bloomberg they did not believe his new approach would succeed. Downing Street had been hoping for a more nuanced Supreme Court verdict to make it easier to resolve, according to interviews with six people familiar with the internal deliberations over the case.
Given the ruling was more damning than hoped, any attempt to deport people under a treaty would still be open to legal challenge, they said. A former home office official put the odds of a pre-election Rwanda flight at less than 10 percent.
The countdown to a general election explains much of the pressure Sunak is under, and why the demands from Tory MPs are so strident. Trailing the opposition Labour Party by about 20 points in opinion polls, the Tories see tackling immigration as a classic wedge issue. A recent YouGov poll showed 48 percent of voters support the Rwanda plan, compared with 35 percent who don’t.
“We should just put the planes in the air now and force them to go to Rwanda,” Lee Anderson, who Sunak appointed deputy party chairman as a way of mollifying the Tory party’s populist fringe, told Bloomberg. “The government should ignore the law and send them back now. These people are intruders and should be sent back.”
One Tory Member of Parliament told Bloomberg privately they would be submitting a letter of no confidence in Sunak’s leadership to Graham Brady, who chairs the party’s backbench committee which oversees leadership elections. A small group of Tory MPs met this week, deciding to submit no confidence letters in Sunak, and attempt to coordinate further letters from colleagues, people familiar with the meeting said.
Andrea Jenkyns, who has already submitted a letter of no confidence in Sunak, told GB News around six colleagues are preparing to join her. Under party rules, 53 Tory MPs must send a letter to Brady to prompt a confidence vote in Sunak.
The immediate source of their anger is the thousands of immigrants who have crossed the channel from France in recent years. Home Office and Border Force data show 26,699 people arrived in small boats in the first ten months of the year, down a third on last year but still the second-highest figure ever.
Yet for some Tory MPs, the argument goes beyond immigration into a broader question of sovereignty, and is intertwined with the old arguments over Brexit. Former Cabinet minister Simon Clarke told Sky News that if Sunak refused to bypass the ECHR and the 1951 Refugee Convention, it would be a “confidence issue in his judgment as prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party.”
That connection helps to explain why on a day that the UK’s Supreme Court ruled against the government, Sunak spent so much time in Parliament and during the press conference talking about “foreign courts.”
Yet it risks dragging Sunak into uncomfortable political territory. If he does acquiesce to the right’s demands, he would antagonize more moderate MPs because the ECHR is woven into the UK’s 1998 Human Rights Act as well as the peace deal for Northern Ireland known as the Good Friday Agreement.
The Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, also warned Sunak that legislating around a Supreme Court ruling in order to declare Rwanda safe would “raise profound and important questions” about the role of courts and Parliament. Former Supreme Court judge Jonathan Sumption told BBC Radio 4 Sunak’s plan is “constitutionally really quite extraordinary.”
It’s the type of language reminiscent of the Conservative government’s legal wrangling as it struggled to deliver on the 2016 Brexit vote.
As ex-premier Theresa May and her ministers found out in those years, giving in to the right risks creating even more demands. But in firing Braverman this week, Sunak indicated to the party there are limits to how far he will go, and that’s why his punchy language won’t necessarily keep his critics quiet for long.
With assistance from Emily Ashton, Joe Mayes and Eamon Akil Farhat/Bloomberg
Image credits: Leon Neal/Getty Images