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Rwanda Bill Passes First Vote in Commons

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Rishi Sunak’s Rwanda Bill passed 313 to 269 with a majority of 44 last night, narrowly avoiding a major rebellion by rightwing Conservative MPs after they abstained on the vote.

In a blow to Sunak’s authority, more than 24 right-wingers abstained in the vote on deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda, including the former home secretary Suella Braverman. MPs warned that the prime minister must strengthen the legislation or face it being voted down when it returns to the Commons in early January.

Immediately after the vote, Sunak posted on X: “The British people should decide who gets to come to this country – not criminal gangs or foreign courts. That’s what this bill delivers. We will now work to make it law so that we can get flights going to Rwanda and stop the boats.”

The Rwanda bill

Sunak has put the controversial Rwanda bill at the heart of his policy to stop people crossing the Channel in small boats, which was one of five key priorities he set out at the start of the year. The legislation is designed to overcome concerns raised by the Supreme Court, which ruled last month that the policy in its previous form violated domestic and international law.

The bill would empower ministers to ignore temporary injunctions raised by the European Court of Human Rights that can stop flights taking off at the last minute. It does not set aside the European Convention on Human Rights and would allow people to launch legal appeals to argue that they should be spared deportation because of particular circumstances.

The vote

Sunak spent hours trying to convince his party not to block the bill, sparing him a humiliating defeat. As hardliners on the right pushed for measures to block interference from foreign courts, the home secretary, James Cleverly, who is said to have previously described the plan as “batshit”, suggested the legislation was already close to the limits of what would be possible. “The actions that we are taking, whilst novel, whilst very much pushing at the edge of the envelope, are within the framework of international law” Cleverly stated in the Commons.

Ahead of the vote, the new immigration minister, Michael Tomlinson, said that stopping all legal appeals against deportation by people who arrive in the UK through irregular means would not be “the British thing to do”, as he confirmed the government would not pull the vote.

Rightwing rebels warned Sunak that “major surgery” was still required to fix the asylum legislation, suggesting that Sunak has agreed to “tighten” the bill and that they could vote against it if the government refused to act on their concerns.

In a last-minute press conference before the vote, Mark Francois, chair of the European Research Group of MPs, said: “We very much hope that at committee those amendments may yet be accepted. If they are not and the bill remains amended in that way, again, collectively we agreed to reserve the right to vote against it at third reading.”

Robert Jenrick, who quit as immigration minister over the plans, used his Commons speech to push for stricter curbs on an individual’s ability to legally challenge their removal and for the government to overrule European Court of Human Rights injunctions. He told MPs: “This bill could be so much better. Let’s make it better.”

Miriam Cates, from the New Conservatives group of MPs, said: “We agree that the bill is defective as it is. We don’t believe it will stop the boats. There are too many opportunities for legal challenges. We do support the principle of the bill, which is to stop the boats.”

The One Nation group, numbering about 100 MPs, backed the bill but has warned it will resist any amendments from the right that would risk the UK breaching the rule of law and its international obligations.

Shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, said: “The Conservatives’ civil war is continuing, and the country is paying the price for this chaos. Today’s debate shows how weak Rishi Sunak is with this Tory psychodrama now dragging on into the New Year.”

Final thought

Sunak now faces weeks of chaos as he struggles to hold together his party, with the rightwing openly attacking his flagship bill, while centrist One Nation MPs have warned they would be unable to support a toughened-up version.

Some ministers have warned that the rebels could push the government to the brink of collapse, with Sunak’s leadership already fragile and the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, demanding an immediate general election if the Rwanda bill falls. However, the PM will take some comfort from the fact that not one Conservative MP voted against the bill – while the number of abstentions was significantly lower than the 100 claimed by the so-called “five families” on the party’s right.

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