Rishi Sunak has insisted he will “ignore” international law in order to ensure asylum seekers get deported to Rwanda.
The prime minister managed to get his controversial policy through its latest parliamentary stage last night after days of rebellions from Conservative MPs, who want to see the bill toughened up.
But despite two rebel sources telling Sky News’s political editor Beth Rigby that ‘no confidence’ letters had now been submitted over his leadership, he insisted his party was “completely united in wanting to stop the boats”.
Mr Sunak also claimed his plan to stop small boat crossings in the Channel was “working” – despite government figures showing a further 358 asylum seekers arrived in the UK on Wednesday.
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Opposition parties called out Mr Sunak for focusing on the “unworkable and expensive policy” of Rwanda instead of tackling crises in the NHS and the economy.
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said the events of recent days “confirms how desperately out of touch and out of ideas this Conservative government is”, while the SNP’s Alison Thewliss said Mr Sunak’s priorities were “all wrong and the public are fed up”.
Government legal advice states that failing to comply with so-called section 39 orders from European courts – used previously to stop deportation flights taking off before additional court hearings – would be a breach of international law.
Rule 39 orders are issued by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on an exceptional basis, where there is a “real risk of serious and irreversible harm”.
Asked at today’s press conference whether he would be willing to ignore such rulings, Mr Sunak said: “I’ve been crystal clear repeatedly that I won’t let a foreign court stop us from getting flights off and getting this deterrent up and running.
“The bill specifically contains a power that makes clear that ministers are the ones that make these decisions. Parliament has supported that.
“[The bill also] makes it perfectly clear that the domestic courts should respect that decision.”
He added: “I would not have put that clause in the bill if I was not prepared to use it. So, look, if you’re asking me are there circumstances in which I will ignore rule 39, then the answer is clearly yes.”
Sunak ignores party drama to focus ire on the Lords
The prime minister began his press conference by attempting to dismiss all the drama and debate of the past few days – the questions about his leadership, the doubts the policy would work – with the optimistic claim “the Conservative Party has come together”.
That’s highly debatable on a morning in which rebels are claiming to have submitted ‘several’ letters of no confidence.
Rather than dwelling on the internal divisions within his party, however, he optimistically wanted to project himself as a man intent on tackling the “biggest challenges that face the country”, that he’s getting on with the job, and that his plan is working.
But the key focus was to lecture the House of Lords on the importance of passing the legislation as soon as possible – urging them to “get on board and do the right thing” and “move as quickly as we have” – stressing the “appointed” nature of members of the Upper House compared to the “elected” Commons.
He’s singling out the “opposition” in the Lords – and while it’s true that Labour categorically oppose the plan, it’s worth remembering the last time the scheme was debated there, the most stinging criticism came from the archbishops and law lords, who are non-affiliated.
While you’d expect a Conservative prime minister to focus his attacks on Labour for “sniping from the side-lines” of his policy, taking on the Lords more broadly is an odd strategy.
Some of the language used – suggesting they might “try and frustrate the will of the people” – was reminiscent of the Brexiteer condemnation of Supreme Court judges as “enemies of the people”.
Mr Sunak has found it hard enough to keep his MPs on board. He certainly doesn’t have the same power over the Lords – but he’s come out fighting.
It seems he is pre-emptively seeking to blame the Lords for any further delay to the plan too.
Repeatedly asked by journalists whether he’s sticking to his pledge to see deportation flights taking off by the spring, he was unable to repeat that previous commitment – indeed, he wasn’t even able to say planes would take off before the next general election, which seems likely to be in the Autumn.
The prime minister insisted at the end of last year that the first flights to Rwanda would take off “in the spring”.
Asked if this was still the case, Mr Sunak said: “I want to see this happen as soon as practically possible. Of course I do.”
But he threw the deadline to the House of Lords – where the bill will face its next round of scrutiny and is expected to be bitterly opposed by numerous peers.
He said: “The question is will the House of Lords understand the country’s frustration, see the will of the elected House [the Commons] and move as quickly as we have to support this legislation so we can get it on the statute books and then get flights up and running?”
Barrister and cross-bench peer Lord Carlisle described the prime minister’s press conference as “banal”, “vacuous” and “extremely repetitive”, telling Sky News: “It is plain… [Mr Sunak] doesn’t understand anything about the way the House of Lords operates. We are not there to thwart the government.”
He described the government’s course of action as a “step towards totalitarianism, saying: “When a government decides to push aside its senior courts – and here we’re talking about something that arose in the UK Supreme Court – that is certainly a first step towards a very undesirable form of government.”
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The prime minister also said he was “proud of the progress” the government had made on tackling small boat crossings, and claimed his plan was “working” – albeit admitting there was “not one single silver bullet that will fix it”.
But shortly after the press conference, the latest statistics showed 358 people in eight boats had made the dangerous journey to the UK shore on Tuesday alone, bringing the total for 2024 so far to 621.
The controversial Rwanda bill is designed to send asylum seekers arriving in the UK on small boats to the African nation, and act as a deterrent to others from making Channel crossings.
Around 60 Tory MPs defied the government by voting for amendments to toughen up the law – including proposals to limit appeals and stop interventions against deportation flights from international courts.
But none of the changes were approved in the Commons, and when it came to a vote on the bill in its entirety, only 11 Conservatives – including former home secretary Suella Braverman and ex-immigration minister Robert Jenrick – chose to rebel.
In fact, several of the prominent figures who publicly argued the legislation needed to be tougher fell into line when the crunch vote came late last night – with two MPs who resigned their party posts in order to back rebel amendments walking through the yes lobby.
However, Ms Braverman, who was fired as home secretary in Mr Sunak’s last reshuffle, posted on X that the Rwanda bill would “not stop the boats” in its current form and “leaves us exposed to litigation and the Strasbourg court”.
She added: “I engaged with the government to fix it but no changes were made. I could not vote for yet another law destined to fail.”
Despite overcoming disquiet on his backbenches, Mr Sunak is not out of the woods yet, with Tory rebel sources telling Sky News’s political editor Beth Rigby that “several” MPs had submitted no confidence letters in the prime minister as a result of the internal row.
Asked by Sky News what his message was to those Tories who had voted down his bill in parliament last night, Mr Sunak said: “The plan is working right across the board. You can see that progress is being made. And our job is to stick to that plan, deliver for the country.”