Rishi Sunak has insisted he will “ignore” international law in order to ensure asylum seekers get deported to Rwanda.
The prime minister managed to get his controversial policy through its latest parliamentary stage last night after days of rebellions from Conservative MPs, who want to see the bill toughened up.
But despite two rebel sources telling Sky News’ political editor Beth Rigby that ‘no confidence’ letters had now been submitted over his leadership, he insisted his party was “completely united in wanting to stop the boats”.
Mr Sunak also claimed his plan to stop small boat crossings in the Channel was “working” – despite government figures showing a further 358 asylum seekers arrived in the UK on Wednesday.
Politics live: Sunak warns peers not to ‘frustrate will of the people’
Government legal advice states that failing to comply with so-called section 39 orders from European courts – used previously to stop deportation flights taking off before additional court hearings – would be a breach of international law.
Rule 39 orders are issued by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on an exceptional basis, where there is a “real risk of serious and irreversible harm”.
Asked a press conference whether he would be willing to ignore such rulings, Mr Sunak said: “I’ve been crystal clear repeatedly that I won’t let a foreign court stop us from getting flights off and getting this deterrent up and running.
“The bill specifically contains a power that makes clear that ministers are the ones that make these decisions. Parliament has supported that.
“[The bill also] makes it perfectly clear that the domestic courts should respect that decision.”
He added: “I would not have put that clause in the bill if I was not prepared to use it. So, look, if you’re asking me are there circumstances in which I will ignore rule 39, then answer is clearly yes.”
The prime minister insisted at the end of last year that the first flights to Rwanda would take off “in the spring”.
Asked if this was still the case, Mr Sunak said: “I want to see this happen as soon as practically possible. Of course I do.”
But he threw the deadline to the House of Lords – where the bill will face its next round of scrutiny and is expected to be bitterly opposed by numerous peers.
He said: “The question is will the House of Lords understand the country’s frustration, see the will of the elected House [the Commons] and move as quickly as we have to support this legislation so we can it on the statue books and then get flights up and running?”
The prime minister also said he was “proud of the progress” the government had made on tackling small boat crossings, and claimed his plan was “working” – albeit admitting there was “not one single silver bullet that will fix it”.
But shortly after the press conference, the latest statistics showed 358 people in eight boats had made the dangerous journey to the UK shore alone on Tuesday, bring the total for 2024 so far to 621.
The controversial Rwanda bill is designed to send asylum seekers arriving in the UK on small boats to the African nation, and act as a deterrent to others from making Channel crossings.
Around 60 Tory MPs defied the government by voting for amendments to toughen up the law – including proposals to limit appeals and stop interventions against deportation flights from international courts.
But none of the changes were approved in the Commons, and when it came to a vote on the bill in its entirety, only 11 Conservatives – including former home secretary Suella Braverman and ex-immigration minister Robert Jenrick – chose to rebel.
In fact, several of the prominent figures who publicly argued the legislation needed to be tougher fell into line when the crunch vote came late last night – with two MPs who resigned their party posts in order to back rebel amendments walking through the yes lobby.
However, Ms Braverman, who was fired as home secretary in Mr Sunak’s last reshuffle, posted on X that the Rwanda bill would “not stop the boats” in its current form and “leaves us exposed to litigation and the Strasbourg court”.
She added: “I engaged with the government to fix it but no changes were made. I could not vote for yet another law destined to fail.”
Despite overcoming disquiet on his backbenches, Mr Sunak is not out of the woods yet, with Tory rebel sources telling Sky News’s political editor Beth Rigby that “several” MPs had submitted no confidence letters in the prime minister as a result of the internal row.
Asked by Sky News what his message was to those Tories who had voted down his bill in parliament last night, Mr Sunak said: “The plan is working right across the board. You can see that progress is being made. And our job is to stick to that plan, deliver for the country.”