A tale of Tory tussle: the Conservatives’ Rwanda plan

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Six weeks into 2024, the British public is well-aware that, barring an unprecedented turnaround, this will be the fourteenth and final year of this Conservative government. And with Parliament back into the swing of things after the Christmas recess, the struggle to implement the Rwanda policy is a clear reminder of why defeat for the Conservatives is inevitable.

The problems began last November, when the Supreme Court ruled the government’s flagship policy to tackle illegal migration was unconstitutional. This confirmed the Rwanda asylum plan, the most contentious policy of the Sunak premiership, as unworkable within the bounds of both domestic and international law.  The court determined that the plan, to send illegal immigrants, who arrive in so-called ‘small boats’ on Britain’s shores, to Rwanda, would violate human rights legislation, due to a lack of assurances over their safety in the East African country.  

The struggle to implement the Rwanda policy is a clear reminder of why defeat for the Conservatives is inevitable

A significant judgement on the matter of human rights was over the issue of ‘non-refoulement’. This concept, outlined in both British and international law, legislates that an illegal immigrant cannot be returned to their country of origin if they face war or persecution, and the Supreme Court was not confident that Rwanda would abide by this law.  

It cited a similar agreement over illegal migration between Israel and Rwanda up until 2018, and stated that the latter had breached the terms of non-refoulement. Just as important to the ruling, however, was the belief that political corruption, economic instability, and the potential for exploitation by criminals, would leave vulnerable migrants in danger in Rwanda.  

This was only the beginning of Mr Sunak’s wrestle on Rwanda. What followed was four weeks of scrambling, negotiating, and pleading by the government to make the policy fit for use, and to keep the party together as fractures turned to factions. Immediately following the ruling in November, Sunak and James Cleverly, the new Home Secretary, both vowed to make the policy work. 

This was only the beginning of Mr Sunak’s wrestle on Rwanda

In the first week of December, Mr Cleverly travelled to Kigali to alter the terms of the treaty with Rwanda, and explicitly ensure laws on non-refoulement would be followed. However, the issues only worsened upon his return to Westminster. The day after the new agreement was struck, Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick resigned, stating the emergency deal “did not go far enough” to ensure the policy would be implemented.  

Things went from bad to worse for the government, as on the eve of a vote in which the government sought to legislate that Rwanda was in fact a safe country, the so-called ‘five families’ on the right-wing of the Conservative Party, announced that they had told the MPs they represent to abstain from voting. Their plan was to allow the vote to pass to a third reading in the new year, where they would work to amend the terminology of the bill, to strengthen it against legal challenge.  

At the same time these groups were working to make the bill tougher, and able to withstand the pressures of international law, the more centrist One Nation Tories informed Mr Sunak that they too would abstain, as they believed amendments should be made to ensure the bill respected the international conventions to which Britain is subjected. However, the Prime Minister managed to win this group over on the morning of the vote, with reports of negotiating over croissants and coffee at Downing Street, and ultimately, the government just about survived this scare. The bill was passed by a slim 44 votes. An early Christmas gift for Sunak. All was calm, all was bright. Until the New Year, that is.

The resumption of Parliament brought about the third reading of the Rwanda bill, through which the government was determined to establish that the Supreme Court was wrong, and Rwanda is, in fact, a safe country. However, once again, the night before the vote, two party deputy chairs, Lee Anderson and Brendan Clarke-Smith, resigned from the government, and joined the December rebels in rejecting the bill, believing it would be too weak to overcome international law. This was yet another great knock to the credibility and unity of the government, though, like the previous vote, the third reading also just passed, again, by 44 votes.

the government “may as well rule that all cats are dogs”

The days of reckoning in the House of Lords came at the end of January, with the Lords first voting against ratifying the new treaty with Rwanda, which passed through the Commons in December, believing further provisions would be needed to ensure compliance with international law. A week later, the House did vote the Safety of Rwanda Bill through for a second reading, but any sense of victory for the government was limited, due to the strong criticism it faced, from all corners of the chamber. 

The typically politically impartial Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, described the bill as “damaging” to the global view of Britain, as well as to desperate asylum seekers. Meanwhile, former Conservative Chancellor, Lord Ken Clarke, voted against the government, believing it was undemocratic for the government to ignore the Supreme Court ruling, quipping that the government “may as well rule that all cats are dogs”.

If the mood music from the upper house is anything to go by, the government is very likely to lose

And that just about brings us up to date. The government has managed to just about squeeze the necessary legislation through the Commons, but through a process characterised by Tory infighting and division. Questions have been raised over the strength of the Prime Minister, and there remain concerns from all parties over the legality of the bill, and its undermining of the fabric of British democracy.  

Now the bill is under the intense scrutiny of the Lords, with the passing of any laws delayed until further notice, and if the mood music from the upper house is anything to go by, the government is very likely to lose.  

A policy first launched by Boris Johnson in early 2022, carried forward by successive Prime Ministers and Home Secretaries, and brought into sharper focus by heightened rhetoric to ‘stop the boats’, surely cannot fail?  How can Sunak square the estimated £240 million put towards the project already, with the only people successfully sent on a plane to Rwanda being the last three Home Secretaries?

The battle Sunak now faces to convince the entire British political system that he has resuscitated this policy since the Supreme Court ruling, and that the Rwanda plan can be fit for use, will be the most monumental challenge of his premiership. The only certainty is that this policy has divided the party beyond repair, for as long as he is the leader, anyways.  

If the bill fails in the Lords, and heads back to the Commons, further alterations will be needed.  If he then decided to bow to the pressure of the ‘five families’ on the right, and take more firm action, such as remove Britain from the European Convention of Human Rights, it could be very damaging to international reputation.  

Even then, as the Supreme Court outlined in November, both British statutory law, United Nations Human Rights law, as well as other treaties and conventions of which Britain is a member, would mean such an action may still not protect the policy against international law.  

If he sought the more One Nation approach, and follow international law to the letter, the policy would likely be rendered impossible. The Prime Minister is well and truly between a right-wing rock and a half-baked hard place.

As far as the future of this government is concerned, Sunak needs to make the Rwanda policy work.  The promise to ‘stop the boats’ seems no closer than it did when the phrase was coined back in January last year.  

This tale of Tory tussle over Rwanda will likely be the difference between Conservative defeat and Conservative destruction at the general election

A YouGov poll in December 2023 showed that only 20% of people support the Rwanda plan, with 49% against it. However, over 60% of all voters believe both legal and illegal immigration is currently too high, with this figure at 82% for Conservative voters. 41% of voters believe immigration is the joint-second most important issue ahead of the next election – tied with health, behind the economy.  The numbers are clear.  If the Tories fail to execute this policy, the electorate, wherever their partisan loyalties lie, will punish them for it at the polls. What’s more, those who backed the party in 2019, on the basis of enhanced post-Brexit border control, will feel betrayed by the party and the passionate Brexiteer in Number 10.

For these reasons, this tale of Tory tussle over Rwanda will likely be the difference between Conservative defeat and Conservative destruction at the general election, whenever it comes this year. Sunak, Cleverly, et al. face the toughest of tasks and, in truth, they are largely powerless to the outcome at this present moment.  

Even the scrapping of British memberships to numerous human rights declarations may not be enough to revive the Rwanda policy. If Rishi Sunak cannot deliver on his promise to ‘stop the boats,’ the Conservatives will not only find themselves in Opposition in no time at all, but they may find themselves considerably fewer in numbers than their Labour counterparts five years prior. And on top of all that, the soon-to-be former Prime Minister will find himself handing a grand over to Piers Morgan.

Image: HM Treasury via Wikimedia Commons

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