Britain’s prime minister Rishi Sunak is scrambling to convince his own Conservative Party backbenchers to support his legislation to tackle illegal immigration, one of his top political priorities.
Mr Sunak is in crisis mode after Robert Jenrick resigned as immigration minister on Wednesday night. Mr Jenrick quit because he felt the prime minister’s Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Draft Bill, which would enable Britain to deport to Rwanda asylum seekers who arrive illegally to the UK, wasn’t tough enough.
The bill would declare Rwanda to be a safe country to which to send migrants, overcoming a key legal obstacle after a previous attempt to set up an immigration deal with the African country floundered in the courts. But immigration hardliners on the right of the Tory party are angry that the Bill doesn’t include a provision to override international human rights law.
It is now unclear if the prime minister can muster enough votes to get his legislation through its second reading in the House of Commons next Tuesday. If he fails to get the numbers, Mr Sunak’s position as leader would be severely weakened.
Recognising the political trouble he is in, Mr Sunak called a press conference in Downing Street at 11am on Thursday to appeal for his critics on immigration to back his plan, which he said was the “toughest ever” attempt to tackle the issue of refugees arriving illegally.
Mr Sunak cited his personal background as the child of immigrants, but he highlighted that they had come to Britain legally.
He promised to “end the merry-go-round” of legal challenges to deportation orders and said his proposed legislation would rule out almost all grounds for asylum seekers to block their deportation in the courts. Mr Sunak said that any exceptions would be “vanishingly rare”.
The prime minister said his “patience ... has worn thin” trying to deal with the issue of immigration and his plan was the best that anybody had ever put forward.
“I want to finish the job. That means getting this legislation on the statute books,” he said at the press gathering in Downing Street, which was also attended by the home secretary, James Cleverly. Tom Pursglove and Michael Tomlinson, two new ministers appointed to replace Mr Jenrick – whose old role has been split between legal and illegal immigration – were also present.
When asked if Mr Jenrick was right to say that the prime minister’s approach would not solve the issue, Mr Sunak responded to say “he is simply not right”.
“[To] the people who say I should do something different: the difference between them and me is an inch,” said Mr Sunak. But he said “that inch”, which is his unwillingness to unilaterally disapply international law on migrants, could cause the entire agreement with Rwanda to collapse.
Mr Sunak said Tuesday’s vote on the Bill would not be seen as a confidence vote in the Government, which means Tory backbenchers would not be expelled from the parliamentary party for refusing to back it. However, if he loses the vote a challenge to the prime minister’s leadership could follow.
Mr Sunak appealed to Labour Party MPs who want to tackle immigration to back his plan.