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Splits within the UK Conservative party deepened on Sunday ahead of a crunch vote on legislation aimed at salvaging plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, with the former immigration minister saying it was “weak” and would fail.
Robert Jenrick, who quit the government last week, told the BBC he would vote against Rishi Sunak’s emergency bill on Tuesday because it would leave the door open to “every single person” arriving in the UK via small boat crossings to challenge their removal to the African country on the grounds that it was not safe for them personally.
“I couldn’t be the minister who was guiding this critical bill through parliament . . . if I felt, as I do, that it is a weak bill that won’t work,” he said.
In his first interview since resigning after the prime minister set out the legislation on Wednesday, 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.
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 plans to send asylum seekers to the African country were unlawful, because it would put them at real risk of being repatriated to their countries of origin without proper consideration of their claims.
Ministers have said the emergency 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, have this weekend been lobbying backbench Conservatives to back the legislation on Tuesday.
Since the opposition Labour party vowed to oppose the bill, only 29 of 350 Tory MPs need to vote against it or abstain for it not to pass.
Michael Gove, levelling up secretary, on Sunday rejected Jenrick’s claims, telling the BBC that the government’s legislation would in effect block the vast majority of challenges.
He said this was because individual claimants would need to prove they faced an “immediate risk of serious and irreversible harm” if sent to Rwanda.
Asked if the Tory party’s success in an election hinged on the bill achieving its objectives, Gove said: “I’m not interested in electoral fortunes, I’m interested in doing what’s right.”
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”.
However, Suella Braverman, who was sacked as home secretary last month, reiterated her view that the legislation was not fit for purpose in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph.
A “star chamber” of Conservative lawyers will publish its verdict on the bill on Monday, amid reports that it has already concluded that the legislation in its current form is not workable.
A key criticism of the legislation from rightwing Tory MPs is that one section of the bill allows individuals to challenge removal to Rwanda on the grounds of personal safety.
Asked whether he believed flights would ultimately take off for Rwanda, Jenrick said he did but not under the current formulation of the bill.
“I’m determined that we can persuade the government and colleagues in parliament that there is a better way,” he said, adding that it would not be necessary for the UK to leave international treaties such as the European Convention on Human Rights to successfully prevent legal challenges to removal.
Jenrick noted it was the “government’s own view” that the bill had a relatively low chance of working, after government lawyers warned that the scheme had a “50 per cent chance at best” of enabling flights to take off for Kigali next year.
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