UK political rebellion threatens PM Rishi Sunak’s leadership ahead of crunch vote

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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaves Dorland House in London after giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry during its second investigation exploring core UK decision-making and political governance.

Jordan Pettitt | Pa Images | Getty Images

LONDON — U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Tuesday is seeking to shore up his weakening grip on power by pushing ahead with a vote on his controversial Rwanda immigration bill despite mounting pressure from rightwing rebels within his own party.

Sunak has positioned his flagship policy as the U.K.’s “toughest immigration law ever” in an effort to quell dissent and win the backing of hardline Tories, but many insist that the plans are not robust enough and will face further legal blockages.

The prime minister’s original plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda was thrown out last month after the Supreme Court ruled that the African country was an unsafe place to send those arriving to Britain in small boats.

The revised bill, dubbed the “Safety of Rwanda Bill,” was introduced last week as emergency legislation to override domestic and international law in a signal that it has become an increasingly defining feature of his leadership.

It faces its first parliamentary test this evening, when members of parliament (MPs) will get a chance to debate and vote on it at approximately 7 p.m. local time.

Sunak is aiming to galvanize support ahead of the vote by hosting a series of meetings with MPs, including a breakfast summit at Downing Street. But he faces an uphill battle from both sides of the party, with moderates concerned about Britain breaching its human rights obligations and those to the right arguing to plans will fail to stem illegal arrivals.

He aims to both ensure that party members vote and, crucially, that they vote in favor of the bill. The bill will still be subject to later rounds of approval, including in the House of Lords, the unelected upper chamber.

Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party, Lee Anderson (L) leaves with Conservative MPs including Lia Nichi (2L), Alexander Stafford (5L), and Jill Mortimer (R) from 10 Downing Street in central London on December 12, 2023, after attending a breakfast meeting with Britain’s Prime Minister. (Photo by Adrian DENNIS / AFP) (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Adrian Dennis | Afp | Getty Images

The Conservatives’ current working majority in the House of Commons is 56. As such, it would take only around 30 Conservative MPs to vote with opposition parties — who largely oppose the legislation — for it to fall flat.

More than 20 MPs are expected to rebel, one Tory insider told the BBC.

A defeat would be a major embarrassment for Sunak, who has made stopping boat-arrivals one of his biggest priorities, and would significantly weaken his authority over his party.

Political divisions have beset Sunak’s short premiership over recent months, with former Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who was ousted last month, leading the charge of rebel factions questioning his continued leadership ahead of a general election likely due next year.

Opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer, who is leading in the polls, said Tuesday that he would vote against the bill, describing it as a “gimmick” and saying that his party would use the money to step up cross-border policing to tackle human trafficking gangs.

The government so far paid £240 million ($301 million) to Rwanda, though it only has the capacity to settle several hundred refugees and no one has yet been sent to the country.

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