Advertisement

Sir Keir Starmer attacks Tory 'farce' over Rwanda bill - as Rishi Sunak insists the small boats plan 'will work'

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has attacked the "farce" playing out in the Conservative Party over the government's Rwanda bill, claiming Rishi Sunak's plan had been "brutally exposed" by his own MPs.

Ministers insist the scheme to deport asylum seekers who arrive via small boats is "the most robust" immigration legislation ever presented to the Commons, and will revive the plan after it was ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court late last year.

But right-wing factions within the Tories want it to go even further - especially on limiting appeals and disapplying international law - and 60 MPs rebelled against the government on Tuesday night to support toughening up the bill.

Politics live:
Starmer drops expletive in criticism of Rwanda plan

Further amendments are being debated today, with more rebellions on the cards for later - including threats from some senior Tories that they could vote down the bill in its entirety if ministers don't accept their proposals.

But Mr Sunak would face further rebellion from the centrist wing of his party if he conceded to the right-wing demands.

'Bald men scrapping over a single broken comb'

Speaking at Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) shortly before the second day of debate on the legislation began, Sir Keir compared the Conservatives to "hundreds of bald men scrapping over a single broken comb".

The Labour leader said the "open revolt" within the Tories against "his policy, each other and reality" proved the "gimmick" of the Rwanda bill was set to fail.

"It's such utterly pathetic nonsense," he said, adding: "If the prime minister can't even persuade his own MPs it is worth supporting him... why on earth should anyone else think differently?"

But Mr Sunak stood by his new legislation, despite the rebellions and the criticism, telling the Commons: "I have absolute conviction that the plan we have in place will work, absolute conviction, because I think it is important that we grip this problem."

He said it was "important that we have a working deterrent" to put asylum seekers off from making the dangerous journey, and claimed it had legal backing too.

"Four eminent KCs have said it is undoubtedly the most robust piece of immigration legislation this parliament has seen," said the prime minister.

"And a former Supreme Court justice has been clear that the bill works too."

Rebels seeking Downing Street talks

His appearance at PMQs was Mr Sunak's last chance to publicly appeal to his backbenchers to get behind the government's plans before the second day of debate began.

However, one of the rebels, former education minister Jonathan Gullis, told Sky News earlier that he and his allies were keen to "get into 10 Downing Street today" to "talk it out and find a way forward so we can avoid colleagues choosing to either abstain or go in the opposite lobby".

The government has offered limited concessions to the rebels, including increasing the number of judges to take on deportation appeals, and hinting they could change the civil service code to ensure ministers' decisions over disapplying international human rights law would be followed.

But further amendments - specifically around injunctions by international courts grounding flights to Rwanda - are expected today, and more rebellions could take place.

Some Tory backbenchers have even said they are prepared to vote down the bill when it is put to parliament later this evening, including former immigration minister Robert Jenrick, Mr Gullis and ex-housing secretary Simon Clarke.

But it will take around 30 Conservatives to vote against it for the bill to fall.

After six hours of debate on Tuesday, 60 Conservative MPs voted in defiance of the government to back amendments limiting appeals against deportation.

A second amendment around the same issue, put forward by Mr Jenrick, also secured the support of 58 Tories.

Two deputy chairmen of the Tory party and one ministerial aide quit their posts in order to back the rebels.

However, the majority of MPs from all parties voted against the proposals, meaning they were not added to the bill.

Meanwhile, at the World Economic Forum, the president of Rwanda has cast doubt on the future of the scheme.

Asked by Sky News's Ed Conway if the deal between the two countries - costing the British government £240m so far - was working, Paul Kagame said it was a matter for the UK.

And asked if Rwanda was a safe country for refugees, he said again: "Ask the UK - it's the UK's problem."

Speaking to the Guardian, however, Mr Kagame added: "There are limits for how long this can drag on.

"The money is going to be used on those people who will come. If they don't come we can return the money."