Labour and the Liberal Democrats have united in a House of Commons vote to block an attempt supported by 85 Conservative MPs to make it easier to deport convicted foreign criminals.
The debate on the Immigration Bill displayed prime minister David Cameron’s weakening control over some of his own backbenchers, with Conservative whips struggling all day to fend off revolts on numerous fronts.
Tory MP Dominic Raab put forward an amendment that would prevent foreign criminals from citing "rights to a family life" as a reason to stay in the UK. However, home secretary Theresa May said such a move would be illegal and should be disregarded.
Earlier, the prime minister's spokesman said Mr Cameron had "deep sympathy" for Mr Raab's proposal. Equally, Number 10 was unhappy that speaker John Bercow ensured that it would be voted upon.
Ordered to abstain
In the end, however, ministers were ordered to abstain, rather than vote against it – while the Raab measure was defeated only because Labour reversed an earlier decision to abstain and instead voted against.
Labour leader Ed Miliband’s order to MPs to vote against provoked surprise, since the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats would have faced a difficult House of Lords battle to reverse an amendment that was backed by most Conservative backbenchers.
However, it did raise speculation that Labour and the Liberal Democrats – who have been making more approving noises about each other – may be slowly moving towards each other in the run-up to next year’s general election.
Labour's Yvette Cooper pointed out that the home secretary said the Raab amendment was "incompatible" with the UK's signature of the European Convention on Human Rights, yet she "sat on her hands" when it came to a vote.
Mr Raab began his campaign for more deportations after a waiter living in his constituency, Bishal Gurung, was killed "in a very vicious attack, and his body was dumped in the River Thames".
The man convicted of manslaughter managed to prevent deportation back to Nepal because he successfully argued that he had the right to a family life in Britain even though “he was a single adult with no dependants”.
Between 200 and 400 criminals successfully escape deportation each year: “They constitute 89 per cent of all successful human rights challenges to deportation orders,” Mr Raab told MPs.
Such cases make human rights “dirty words” in Britain, he said, warping “the moral balance of British justice”, while criminals’ families are often more at risk if individuals are allowed to stay than if they were deported.
“In one case, a man who had been jailed for raping his partner twice relied, successfully, on his relationship and daughter with the same woman to avoid deportation,” he said, declaring that criminals are using families as “a legal lifeline”.
A drug dealer jailed for beating his girlfriend and “other brutal, barbaric attacks” successfully cited his young daughter as grounds for evading deportation, even though he had never paid maintenance and “scarcely” saw her.
Ms May easily won a vote that will allow her to deprive foreign-born naturalised British subjects of their British citizenship – even if that leaves them stateless – if they act “in a manner seriously prejudicial” to British interests.
Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Teather, unhappy with her own side's backing of this, said it was "a sad day" that legislation that will cause "serious harm" to children was being passed "to pacify a Conservative Party rebellion".
Meanwhile, party whips ensured Mr Cameron escaped a vote on another one of his MP’s demands for a return of powers to ban Romanians and Bulgarians from working in the UK.