Adam Forrest and Kate Devlin, Associated Press
Rishi Sunak’s premiership has been rocked by the resignation of immigration minister Robert Jenrick after the PM failed to appease Tory right-wingers with his emergency Rwanda legislation. Home secretary James Cleverly unveiled a bill in the Commons to “disapply” the UK Human Rights Act in a bid to stop British judges from blocking the deportation of asylum seekers. But the embattled Tory leader has not been able to head off a revolt by MPs on the right of the party, who are furious that the PM chose not to opt out of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
In his scathing resignation letter, Jenrick told Sunak he did not believe the new bill “provides us with the best possible chances of success” in getting the Rwanda flights to take off. The hardliner made clear he wanted to bypass the ECHR – revealing that he had been “pushing for the strongest possible” bill that would put “national interests above highly contested interpretations of international law”. In response, Sunak branded the departure “disappointing”, but told Jenrick in a letter he fears it was “based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation”.
Labour said the latest “chaotic chapter” of Tory infighting showed why it was time for a change of power. The Liberal Democrats said Sunak had lost control of government, as another minister “flees this sinking ship”. Sunak now faces the near-impossible task of winning votes from both the Tory right, who wanted a “full fat” crackdown on the ECHR, and moderate MPs in the “One Nation” group who warn they cannot back legislation that flouts human rights law. Adding to the PM’s woes, the sacked home secretary Suella Braverman issued a stinging attack on Sunak — warning that he faces “electoral oblivion” if he fails to get Rwanda flights off the ground before the next election. The new Sunak bill includes provisions to disapply relevant parts of the Human Rights Act so they cannot be factored into court decisions on deportation cases
but does not try to disapply the ECHR. However, the legislation will ensure UK ministers “retain the decision on whether or not to comply” with interim orders from the European Court of Human Rights — the Strasbourg body that oversees the ECHR. In yet another headache for Sunak, the Rwandan government immediately responded to the move by warning that it could pull out of the deal if the UK fails to comply with “the highest standards of international law”.
The east-central African country’s foreign affairs minister Vincent Biruta warned: “Without lawful behaviour by the UK, Rwanda would not be able to continue with the Migration and Economic Development Partnership.” Sunak defended his plans at a showdown meeting of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers on Wednesday evening — but failed to keep the right-wingers onside.
A source close to Ms Braverman made clear that the bill doesn’t come close to meeting her tests. “It is fatally flawed,” the ally said. “It is a further betrayal of Tory voters.” Some Tory right-wingers submitted letters of no confidence in Sunak on Wednesday, according to ITV. Ex-minister Andrea Jenkyns, an ardent Boris Johnson loyalist, said Jenrick’s resignation “may be the death knell for Sunak’s leadership”.
Dozens of hardliners — including members of the 35-strong New Conservatives, the Common Sense Group and the European Research Group — met again on Wednesday evening to decide if they could vote for the new bill. The Independent understands many of them are unhappy with the “middle way” option to disapply the Human Rights Act. One senior MP said there would be “no purpose” to the bill if it fails to thwart ECHR challenges. The PM had been warned that he faced an even more damaging rebellion — with the possible resignation of up to 10 moderate ministers — if he used the emergency legislation to bypass the ECHR.
Senior Tory moderate Damian Green, chair of the One Nation group — which boasts support from around 100 MPs — has warned
Sunak that he “should think twice before overriding both the ECHR and HRA”. A spokesman for One Nation said it welcomed the government’s decision to stick with “international commitments” — but is now taking legal advice on whether it can now support the bill. The front page of the legislation concedes that the government is unable to say whether the bill is compatible with the ECHR, an admission that may make moderates uneasy about voting for it in parliament in the crucial days ahead.
New foreign secretary David Cameron said he was “sorry” that Jenrick had resigned. But he defended the “comprehensive” Rwanda bill — claiming it would “put this policy beyond doubt” and get flights started. In his exit letter, Jenrick told the Tory leader he refused to be “yet another politician who makes promises on immigration to the British public but does not keep them”.
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