James Cleverly, Britain’s new home secretary, has signalled a shift in focus on migration law compared with his ousted predecessor, Suella Braverman, by playing down the importance of pursuing her “dream” policy of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda.
Mr Cleverly took questions in the House of Commons on Monday in his first parliamentary outing as home secretary since he took over from Ms Braverman two weeks ago following her sacking in a cabinet reshuffle. He came under pressure in the chamber from Tory backbenchers, who want him to take a tougher line on immigration as tensions rise again in the Conservative Party over the issue.
Mr Cleverly was grilled by his own backbench MPs on the government’s promise to bring in new legislation to facilitate asylum seeker deportations to Rwanda, after the Supreme Court earlier this month struck down a previous plan on the basis of its incompatibility with the UK’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
Prime minister Rishi Sunak’s government has since signalled that it plans to agree a fresh deal with Rwanda to address the court’s human rights concerns over deportation flights to Rwanda, which Ms Braverman had once described as her “dream” to see taking off.
Mr Cleverly, however, has spent his first two weeks in the job playing down the importance of the Rwanda deal, which has riled his party’s right wing. In the Commons on Monday, he was invited by Miriam Cates, a prominent backbench MP on the right of the Tory party, to confirm that any new UK legislation on Rwanda would override human rights legislation such as the ECHR.
She asked the home secretary to agree that any new laws “must be clear and unambiguous in establishing that the sovereign will of this parliament... takes legal precedence” over international law. Mr Cleverly responded that the law would make it clear that the Rwanda deal was “the will of the British people” but he stopped short of confirming that it would overrule foreign treaties.
He said it was “an incredibly important” part of the UK’s attempts to tackle illegal immigration and curtail asylum claims, but that it was only one of a “basket” of measures that the government would take. Over the weekend, Mr Cleverly inched further away from the seemingly totemic importance attached to the Rwanda deal by Tories, saying it was not the “be all and end all” of policy.
In a sign of tensions around the cabinet table over the wider issue of migration, business secretary Kemi Badenoch pushed Mr Sunak and Mr Cleverly to do “whatever it takes” to bring down net levels of legal migration to Britain, which has reached a record level under the Conservative Party despite its promises to cap arrivals.
Earlier on Monday, the Telegraph newspaper added to the pressure on Mr Sunak by publishing details of a written agreement that Ms Braverman claimed she had with the prime minister on how to tackle immigration. It included four specific measures she claims he agreed to, including raising salary thresholds for work visas, ending visas for graduates, restricting the number of family members visa holders can bring to Britain, and curbing the number of universities for which student visas are issued.