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Bruised Sunak Survives Key Vote on His UK Immigration Policy

Bruised Sunak Survives Key Vote on His UK Immigration Policy
Protesters display placards against the UK government’s Rwanda scheme to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda to deter Channel crossings ahead of a crucial vote in Parliament on the scheme, in London, Britain, 17 January 2024. After the Supreme Court ruled the scheme unlawful in November 2023, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government brought in a new bill to the Parliament to be able to legislate the scheme ahead of a general election. EPA-EFE/TOLGA AKMEN

Rishi Sunak’s signature plan to deport asylum-seekers survived a key vote in Parliament, but not before the British prime minister suffered a series of blows to his authority that damaged his hopes of avoiding defeat at a general election later this year.

The House of Commons voted 320 to 276 on Wednesday in favor of Sunak’s plan to send migrants to Rwanda, after most Conservative Party rebels who had tried to force the government to toughen the bill fell into line rather than risk triggering political turmoil. Only 11 Tory MPs ultimately voted against Sunak. The legislation now advances to the House of Lords, where it is expected to face stiff opposition because the Tories don’t have a majority in the upper chamber.

While Sunak’s office will be relieved to see the legislation clear the Commons and put off any immediate threats to his premiership, the last 48 hours or so have come at a significant political cost. During debates, senior figures in his party have aired their doubts about a central pillar of his strategy months before he faces voters.

Some Tories continued to express their reservations even after voting with the government, including former Cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, who said Sunak faces a challenge to start deportation flights before going to the polls.

“The real problem for this bill is that we’ve got eight or nine months until an election, and that this bill will probably take longer than that with all the legal ramifications,” he told Sky News after the vote. “This bill in and of itself is a perfectly reasonable bill, it could just have been better.”

The Tory mood will likely be further dampened by a YouGov poll for the Times newspaper, which showed support for the governing party has fallen to 20% — a level last seen during the disastrous premiership of Liz Truss. Keir Starmer’s opposition Labour Party has a 27-point lead, according to the poll.

A key moment came Tuesday when Lee Anderson — who Sunak made deputy party chairman to try to stop the Tory party from hemorrhaging support to more right-wing parties — dramatically resigned to vote against the government. The decision, though not accompanied by a broadside against Sunak, signaled to the prime minister’s critics on the right of the party that Anderson didn’t believe the Rwanda bill is tough enough to work.

Still, Wednesday’s majority of 44 was the same as in December’s contentious vote at the preliminary stage in the House of Commons, indicating that the battle lines haven’t substantially changed.

Sunak agrees with right-wing Conservative MPs that a crackdown on asylum-seekers is critical to reversing the poll deficit to Labour and to prevent Nigel Farage’s Reform UK from gaining ground. Many Tories say the small boats carrying migrants to Britain is what voters in their districts complain about most, although polls show the issue trails broader worries about the economy.

Rather than jettisoning the Rwanda plan, announced by former premier Boris Johnson almost two years ago, Sunak embraced it on taking office and made stopping the migrant boats one of the key metrics he wants votes to judge him by. The government says the policy will serve as a deterrent.

But that is as far as Tory unity goes, and a group of rebels wanted Sunak to use the Rwanda legislation to legally bar all access to the British courts for asylum-seekers and to dis-apply international human rights law to the UK’s immigration policy. About 60 Conservative MPs voted to change Sunak’s bill along those lines on Tuesday, and roughly the same again on Wednesday.

They included former Home Secretary Suella Braverman and ex-immigration minister Robert Jenrick, who both left Sunak’s government last year after disagreements over the Rwanda plan. Their decisions were widely perceived as an attempt to position themselves for a leadership contest many assume will happen if the Tories lose the general election as expected.

The pair have also been at the forefront of turning the immigration row into something akin to the years of wrangling over Brexit. Just as right-wing Tories tried to push then leader Theresa May into ever more extreme positions, so Braverman and others have tried to turn a willingness to ignore international human rights law on immigration into an issue of ideological purity.

But Sunak said that conceding to the rebels and breaching international law would lose Rwanda’s cooperation. It would have also alienated more moderate Tories, without whom he couldn’t get his legislation through the Commons.

Speaking in Davos, Switzerland ahead of the vote, Rwandan President Paul Kagame signaled his own frustration with the saga, telling reporters the political and legal challenge facing Sunak in getting the deportation program up and running was “the UK’s problem, not Rwanda’s problem.”

Ultimately, faced with the choice of a bill they don’t love or no bill at all — and the risk of triggering more Tory turmoil that would likely turn off voters — enough rebel MPs opted to back Sunak’s legislation rather than vote it down. “It’s this bill, or no bill,” Conservative MP Bob Seely had warned the rebels.

To be sure, the result is a setback for the likes of Braverman and Jenrick, who will now have to try to regroup on the backbenches to further their ambitions.

Danny Kruger, one of the rebels, said he regretted that they hadn’t managed to change the bill. “Many of my colleagues have decided to vote with the government because they don’t want to cause political disruption,” he said in the Commons.

But Sunak also emerges bruised by the showdown, which undermined his policy and opened the prime minister up to ridicule from opposition politicians. The Liberal Democrats said the days of “chaos and infighting has left the Prime Minister’s authority shot.” Labour’s shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper described Sunak as a prime minister “in office, but not in power.”

For Sunak, the ordeal is also likely far from over. In theory, the House of Lords could block the bill for a year because it wasn’t in the last Tory manifesto, meaning he would run out of time to get deportation flights in the air before the election. Restless Tory MPs are unlikely to accept that quietly.

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