LONDON, ENGLAND – JANUARY 18: UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during a press conference in Downing Street on January 18, 2024 in London, England. He spoke after seeing the Safety of Rwanda Bill pass its third reading in the House of Commons by a majority of 44 last night. (Photo by Stefan Rousseau – WPA Pool/Getty Images)
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British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called on the upper house of parliament to “get on board” and pass his plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, a day after surviving a threatened rebellion over the much-criticised legislation by some in his party.
At a press conference when Sunak tried to convince the public his Conservatives were “united” around his plans to tackle illegal immigration, he appealed to the House of Lords to help him start the flights before this year’s election.
It was a clear acknowledgement that Sunak is concerned the unelected upper house could thwart his attempts to launch his Rwanda plan by trying to introduce changes or even drag out a process he needs to be completed quickly to fulfil his pledge that the flights will start in the spring.
Weakened by the failed rebellion that simply underlined the deep divisions in his party, Sunak repeated his mantra that it was time to “stick with the plan”, that his “plan was working” and that the opposition Labour Party had “no plan”.
“The House of Lords must pass this bill. It’s time to take back control of our borders and defeat the people smugglers. It’s time to restore people’s trust that the system is fair,” he told journalists.
“I think it’s incumbent now on the House of Lords to recognise that, to pass this legislation unamended, as quickly as possible, so that we can then start getting flights up and running.”
With the Conservatives badly trailing Labour in the opinion polls and racked by infighting, Sunak sought to take control of the narrative in the party, saying he was making progress on his pledges such as reducing inflation and offering voters tax cuts.
But the failed rebellion has weakened his standing in the party, with those who wanted to bring changes to his Rwanda legislation saying they were angered by Sunak’s failure to listen to their concerns.
An opinion poll underlined his party’s flagging fortunes, putting support for the Conservatives at the lowest level since former Prime Minister Liz Truss was forced from office.
The Rwanda plan, inherited from former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, has become a thorn in Sunak’s side since courts ruled last year that the plan was unlawful.
Under pressure from right-wing Conservatives, he quickly sought a new treaty with Rwanda and then drafted the new legislation to try to reduce the possibility of asylum seekers challenging deportation orders. But the new legislation has split his party.
Around 60 of his right-wing lawmakers tried and failed to toughen it, and while Sunak reduced that rebellion on Wednesday to just 11 Conservative lawmakers, the mood in the party is restive. To try to appease their concerns, Sunak again said he would ignore orders from the European Court of Human Rights which can impose temporary emergency injunctions on deportations.
“I’ve been crystal clear, repeatedly, that I won’t let a foreign court stop us from getting flights off, and getting this deterrent up and running,” he said.
But he still faces several hurdles to try to start the deportations he says will be a deterrent to those migrants making boat crossings to Britain from France.
Sunak faces many opponents in the House of Lords, where so-called peers are already lining up to try to change, scrap or delay the legislation the prime minister has staked much of his reputation on.
Alex Carlile, an independent member of the House of Lords, described Sunak’s legislation as a “step towards totalitarianism” because it would undermine the integrity of the legal system.