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Splits within the UK Conservative party over migration policy widened on Sunday as Rishi Sunak was braced for a crucial week of his premiership, with a crunch vote on the Rwanda removal scheme and scrutiny of his role during the pandemic.
On Monday, the prime minister will appear before the Covid-19 inquiry, where he is set to be grilled on his decisions as chancellor under then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson. On Tuesday, his government will seek to pass emergency legislation aimed at salvaging plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.
But Tory party divisions on migration came into public view on Sunday as Robert Jenrick, who quit as immigration minister last week, vowed to vote against the bill.
He told the BBC it was “weak” and would allow “absolutely everyone” arriving in the UK via small boat crossings to challenge their removal to the African country.
As Sunak gives evidence to the Covid inquiry, members of several right-wing factions of the governing party will meet on Monday afternoon to hammer out a “collective approach” to the legislation.
A “star chamber” of Conservative lawyers will also present its verdict on Monday. Sir Bill Cash, the group’s chair, wrote in the Sunday Telegraph that the legislation was not “sufficiently watertight” to meet the government’s objectives.
With his party about 20 points behind Labour in opinion polls, Sunak is confronting one of the biggest tests of his premiership over the Rwanda policy. In January, he pledged to “stop the boats” that carry asylum seekers across the English Channel by the general election expected in 2024.
But the Supreme Court ruled unanimously last month that the policy of sending asylum seekers to the African country was unlawful because it would put them at real risk of being repatriated to their countries of origin without proper consideration of their claims.
In his first interview since resigning after Sunak set out the legislation, Jenrick warned that Tory party fortunes “hinge in good measure on sorting out” irregular migration. “The public will not forgive us if we get this wrong again,” he added.
However, levelling up secretary Michael Gove rejected Jenrick’s claims, telling the BBC that the legislation would in effect block the vast majority of challenges and that he was “not interested in electoral fortunes. I’m interested in doing what’s right.”
Ministers have said the legislation will “ensure” that asylum seekers who arrive in Britain by clandestine means can be put on flights.
It states that Rwanda is safe and disapplies some sections of the UK’s Human Rights Act. The government has also put forward a legally binding treaty between London and Kigali that says Rwanda cannot send any asylum seeker removed from Britain on to another country, apart from back to the UK.
Senior cabinet ministers, including foreign secretary Lord David Cameron, were this weekend lobbying Tory MPs to back the legislation in the Tuesday vote.
Asked if the government might be open to making amendments to its bill to satisfy critics, a Downing Street spokesperson said: “We are talking to colleagues, but we are confident this bill is extremely robust and makes the routes for any individual challenge vanishingly small. This is the strongest possible piece of legislation to get Rwanda operational.”
The government is sharing with MPs modelling produced by former home secretary Suella Braverman that backs up the view that the number of cases open to challenge would be exceptionally small, according to a person briefed on the contents.
Since Labour, the main opposition party, has vowed to oppose the bill, only 29 of 350 Conservative MPs need to vote against it or abstain for it not to pass. But the legislation is expected to receive enough support to be given its preliminary second reading, with MPs more likely to lobby for amendments at later stages of its passage in the new year.
Labour will on Monday put forward a “reasoned amendment”, in which the party will state that the bill is “fatally flawed” because it could ultimately affect only about 1 per cent of small boats arrivals and it is unclear if Rwanda will have capacity to accept more than a few hundred people.
At the same time, Labour will set out its plan to improve the asylum system, including new returns agreements with Europe, according to a person briefed on the plan.
Former cabinet minister David Davis told Sky News that he would support the bill, adding that he thought the number of rebels would be “quite small”.
Asked whether he believed flights would ultimately take off for Rwanda, Jenrick said he did but not under the current formulation of the bill, adding that it was the “government’s own view” that the bill had a relatively low chance of working.