British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak managed to avert a crisis in his government, after majority lawmakers voted in favor of a controversial migration policy that would send asylum seekers who arrive illegally in the United Kingdom to Rwanda.
The bill passed with a majority of 44 with no Tories voting against it. It needed more than 30 more votes in favor to pass.
“The British people should decide who gets to come to this country – not criminal gangs or foreign courts,” Sunak posted on X. “We will now work to make it law so that we can get flights going to Rwanda and stop the boats.”
Last month, the U.K. Supreme Court ruled Sunak’s scheme as unsafe and a breach of British and international law, but the prime minister sought to revive it by filing an emergency legislation that declared Rwanda a “safe” country for asylum seekers.
Lawmakers have been split on the bill — with moderates mostly supporting the scheme, but cautioning against potential human right violations. Far-right MPs believe that the legislation is not tough enough and want to bar migrants from having any legal means to appeal deportation.
Conservatives have repeatedly failed to reduce immigration, and though the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat to the U.K. this year has decreased by a third compared to last year, the issue still remains a sticking point for Brexit campaigners.
Government summons MPs home to vote
There was a “narrow landing strip” for the legislation, said home secretary James Cleverly, who supported the deportation bill and recently traveled to Kigali to sign a new migration and economic treaty with Rwanda. But in a sign that the government had weak support, Conservative, Labour, and Scottish National parties withdrew permission for their MPs to be absent from the House of Commons on Tuesday — so as to ensure that they will vote, the Financial Times reports. Though climate talks were reaching a “crisis point” at COP28, the UK’s climate change minister Graham Stuart was reportedly recalled early to vote on the bill. The Labour party, which currently leads in opinion polls by 20 points, said that it would scrap the bill if it wins in general elections next year. Spending £290 million of taxpayers’ money on the plan is “a failed exercise in Conservative party management,” Labour party leader Sir Keir Starmer said.
Sunak saved from embarrassment
Sunak was close to risking humiliation had the bill not passed, as no government has lost a vote this early on in the parliamentary process since 1986. Now, however, the prime minister will face pressure on both sides of the political spectrum — with far-right Conservatives calling for tougher amendments, and opposition from the House of Lords, which plays a key role in examining bills and questioning government action. With Sunak staking so much on the policy, any failure in delivering the Rwanda plan would have severely weakened his authority. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, Reuters reported that the battle on immigration “echoes parliamentary showdowns over Brexit” which led to the exit of then Prime Minister Theresa May.
France faced a similar dilemma
Tougher measures against illegal migrants faced strong resistance in France, where members of the opposition voted down a similarly controversial legislation on Tuesday which was framed as essential to expelling foreign criminals from France. The bill was proposed by President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist government as a way to expel more undocumented people, while also improving migrants’ integration. One of the provisions would remove a ban to expel migrants who arrive in France before the age of 13. French advocacy groups have criticized the bill for disregarding undocumented workers who form the backbone of key industries in France. Macron on Tuesday rejected his interior minister’s offer to resign after the bill he spearheaded failed, and instead ordered him to find new ways to push the legislation through.