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Robert Jenrick, immigration minister, quit on Wednesday as Rishi Sunak’s last-ditch attempt to save his Rwanda asylum policy with “emergency” legislation unleashed a rightwing Conservative backlash.
Sunak issued a “unite or die” plea to Tory MPs along with a new bill that deems Rwanda a “safe” country in law, a measure he claimed will pave the way for migrants to be sent to the African nation.
The bill also orders the courts to ignore the UK’s Human Rights Act and international law including the UN’s Refugee Convention when considering whether Rwanda is safe for asylum seekers, drawing heavy criticism from lawyers.
Jenrick had been calling for a tougher approach and quit. A right-wing Tory insider said Jenrick had warned Number 10 this week he had “legal advice saying it wouldn’t work, but the prime minister ignored him”.
In a letter to the prime minister, Jenrick wrote: “It is with great sadness that I write to tender my resignation as Minister for Immigration. I cannot continue in my position when I have such strong disagreements with the direction of the Government’s policy on immigration.”
One ally of Suella Braverman, whom Sunak sacked as home secretary last month, said the bill was “fatally flawed”, adding: “The prime minister has kept the ability for every single illegal migrant to make individual human rights claims against their removal and to then appeal those claims if they don’t succeed at first.”
Sunak’s allies said the bill was “at the max of what we can do” and that if Britain had exited the European Convention of Human Rights and other international treaties Rwanda would have pulled out of the deal.
“Without lawful behaviour by the UK, Rwanda would not be able to continue with the Migration and Economic Development Partnership,” said Vincent Biruta, Rwanda’s foreign minister.
Yvette Cooper, Labour’s home affairs spokeswoman, mocked Sunak. “The only thing stopping the UK government from ignoring international law is the Rwandan government,” she said.
Sunak pleaded with his party to get behind the bill as the best chance to get flights to Rwanda. His aides said the prime minister reminded MPs of his “unite or die” message to his party last October.
The Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill is far reaching and represents Sunak’s attempt to address the Supreme Court’s ruling last month that the Rwanda scheme is unlawful.
This week Cleverly signed a treaty with Rwanda to underpin the government’s assertion that the east African country is safe for asylum seekers. The treaty said Rwanda would not send migrants back to their origin countries, where they might face persecution.
The legislation’s provisions include an order that UK courts “must not have regard” to any interim decisions by the European Court of Human Rights, which in 2022 blocked the removal of an asylum seeker to Rwanda ahead of a full UK court hearing. It says decisions on whether to comply with interim decisions are the preserve of ministers, a power included in the Illegal Migration Act passed earlier this year.
“The UK government is seeking to overturn an evidence-based finding of fact by the Supreme Court and shield itself from accountability under both domestic and international law through this legislation,” said Law Society of England and Wales president Nick Emmerson.
Cleverly writes in an explanatory note on the first page of the bill that he is “unable to make a statement” that the bill is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, but he wants to proceed in any case.
The Home Office said it was “the toughest immigration legislation ever introduced to parliament” but early signs suggested it would not go far enough to satisfy some Tory rightwingers.
Sunak said: “Through this new landmark emergency legislation, we will control our borders, deter people taking perilous journeys across the channel and end the continuous legal challenges filling our courts.”
Tory moderates from the One Nation group of MPs welcomed Downing Street’s decision “to continue to meet the UK’s international commitments which uphold the rule of law”.
Many lawyers expect the policy will still be challenged in the courts. Ministers fear that Sunak’s hopes of sending migrants to Rwanda before the next general election are unlikely to be realised. “It won’t happen,” said one.
The bill is also expected to face opposition in the House of Lords. Veteran British diplomat Lord John Kerr, who is on the international agreements committee in the House of Lords, said the bill would do “immense harm” to Britain’s reputation.
Sunak has tried to steer a middle course between MPs on the Tory right, who want Britain out of the ECHR, and moderate parliamentarians who insist Britain sticks to its commitments.
Earlier in the day, Braverman warned that the Conservative party faced “electoral oblivion” if it did not bring forward tough legislation to allow asylum seekers to be deported to Rwanda.