Sunak avoids leadership challenge for now as controversial deportation bill passes early vote

British lawmakers have voted in favor of the government’s plan to send some asylum-seekers on a one-way trip to Rwanda

Updated - December 13, 2023 11:12 pm IST

Published - December 13, 2023 03:47 am IST - London

U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on December 12 sought to avoid a humiliating defeat for his latest plans to send migrants to Rwanda that have split his ruling Conservative party.  

U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on December 12 sought to avoid a humiliating defeat for his latest plans to send migrants to Rwanda that have split his ruling Conservative party.   | Photo Credit: Reuters

U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak got through a potential rebellion in the Conservative Party, after he managed to keep enough party members on his side to see through an early stage parliamentary vote on a controversial bill to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda.

The Safety of Rwanda bill passed its second reading in the British House of Commons on Tuesday night by a majority of 44 (313 to 269). Despite the majority, 38 of Mr Sunak’s party colleagues either abstained or could not attend the vote. There were just under 30 abstentions, suggesting trouble for the Prime Minister in the coming weeks as the bill faces further votes in parliament.

Also read: Explained | What is the new U.K. policy on refugees? 

Mr Sunak had pledged to “stop the boats” earlier this year, with some 46,000 people crossed the English Channel in “small boats” in 2022.  The Rwanda legislation is a response to a November ruling from the U.K. Supreme Court that said the (former) Rwanda policy of the U.K. government was unlawful.

The court had said that Rwanda was not, for now, a safe country to which the government could relocate asylum seekers. It also said the policy would put the U.K. on the wrong side of domestic and international law. The new bill defines Rwanda as a safe country — contrary to the court’s verdict. It also allows MPs to ignore certain judgements form the European Court of Human Rights.

Those on the right flank of Conservative Party wanted the bill to go further — such as to fully exclude the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), as they argued that the bill in its current form would fail to be effective. Some right wing MPs, who abstained, planned to vote against the bill during a third reading in January.

Chairman of the European Research Group (ERG) of right-wing Conservative MPs, Mark Francois, said that Mr. Sunak had committed to considering amendments.

“The prime minister had said that he would entertain tightening up the bill. We’re taking him at his word,” Mr Francois told the BBC.

The more centrist among the Tories — such as members of the One Nation Group of MPs — have been concerned that tightening the bill any further would risk the U.K. running afoul of international and domestic humanitarian law.

Leader of the opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer has said he will repeal the bill if it is voted through and if Labour comes to power.

Opinion polls have given Labour close to a 20 point lead over the Conservatives. A YouGov poll conducted in the hours before Tuesday’s vote saw Mr Sunak’s favourability drop to its lowest point , - 49, with 7 in 10 Britons saying they had an unfavourable view of the Prime Minister.

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