Lead up to the vote
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faced a major test on January 17th as his controversial plan to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda came up for a vote in Parliament.
The plan would allow the UK government to send asylum seekers who arrive illegally in the UK on a one-way ticket to Rwanda, where their claims would be processed. If granted asylum, they would have the right to stay in Rwanda.
Sunak has championed the plan as a way to crack down on illegal immigration and dissuade migrants from making the dangerous journey across the English Channel. But it has faced significant criticism from the opposition, human rights groups, and even some members of Sunak’s own Conservative party.
In the lead up to the vote, Sunak tried desperately to quell a rebellion within his party and convince Conservative MPs to back the plan. He held one-on-one meetings and even made concessions, agreeing to initially limit deportations to migrants who arrive illegally as single adult men rather than families.
The vote results
In the end, Sunak was able to secure just enough support to squeak the Rwanda plan through its first major parliamentary vote. The bill passed its “second reading” by a thin margin, with 320 MPs voting in favor and 231 against.
This was helped by a last minute U-turn from former prime minister Boris Johnson and his supporters, who had been threatening to rebel but ultimately voted with the government.
Still, there was significant opposition from within Sunak’s party. Nearly 40 Conservative MPs refused to back the plan, abstaining or voting against it. This is a high number of rebels for a Conservative government and underscores divisions within the party over immigration policy.
Some key Conservative opponents included Andrew Mitchell, who called the Rwanda plan “unethical, impractical and outrageously expensive,” and Simon Hoare, who accused the government of “cutting constitutional corners” to ram through the legislation.
What happens next?
While securing initial passage in the House of Commons was a big win for Sunak, the Rwanda plan still faces major obstacles before it can actually be implemented.
It must now go through further debate and amendment in the House of Commons before facing an even tougher test in the House of Lords, where there is likely to be stronger opposition. Even some Conservatives warn that the unelected upper chamber will reject or substantially alter the legislation.
There’s also the risk that even if it does become law, the policy could get held up or blocked entirely in the courts. Similar deportation arrangements have been overturned in European courts in the past.
All this means that despite winning the first parliamentary vote, it is still highly uncertain whether Sunak will ever actually be able to implement his flagship Rwanda policy and start putting asylum seekers on flights to Kigali. The narrow victory came at the cost of angering many in his own party, and the challenges ahead suggest there could still be an ignominious u-turn down the line.
For now, Sunak continues to insist the Rwanda plan is the right approach. But his hopes of making progress on an issue that has bedeviled successive Conservative leaders hang delicately in the balance.
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