In an ominous sign for the Sunak premiership, immigration minister Robert Jenrick quit because the proposal “does not go far enough”.
His exit seemed assured after he failed to appear alongside home secretary James Cleverly in the Commons as legislation was unveiled, prompting Labour’s Yvette Cooper to mockingly ask: “Where is he?”
In a statement, Jenrick said: “I cannot continue in my position when I have such strong disagreements with the direction of the government’s policy on immigration.”
His letter to the prime minister says the plan is a “triumph of hope over experience”, adding: “The stakes for the country are too high for us not to pursue the stronger protections required to end the merry-go-round of legal challenges which risk paralysing the scheme.”
In a bid to salvage the prime minister’s flagship immigration reform, his government published emergency legislation to deal with the stalemate over the controversial policy.
The new safety of Rwanda (asylum and Immigration) bill, released on Wednesday, overides parts of the Human Rights Act, which is designed to prevent the act from getting in the way of sending migrants to the east African country.
And in the bill’s introduction, Cleverly states that he cannot guarantee the new law would be compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
But the plan is now in tatters, and it was unclear whether the package would work even before the shock resignation. Tory hardliners had wanted a “full fat” plan, and there was no guarantee the courts would interpret the bill in the way Sunak intended. The legislation was born out of the UK’s Supreme Court deeming the deportation plan unlawful in November.
And to make matters worse, the Rwandan government indicated it would pull out of the agreement if it failed to meet international law.
But Conservative moderates who had urged the PM not to ride roughshod over human rights appeared more happy. The One Nation caucus said: “We welcome the government’s decision to continue to meet the UK’s international commitments which uphold the rule of law.
“We will be taking legal advice from the former solicitor-general Lord Garnier about concerns and the practicalities of the Bill.”
It comes a day after the government signed a new treaty with Rwanda designed to address the concerns raised by the Supreme Court.
The pact – the third signed by a third home secretary – states that the migrants will not be returned to a country where their life or freedom would be threatened, one of the court’s key criticisms.
Underlining the simmering internal party tensions, former home secretary Suella Braverman warned the Conservatives faces “electoral oblivion” if they fail to get the Rwanda bill across the line.
Using tough-sounding language, Sunak said: “I have been unequivocal that we can no longer tolerate the endless scourge of illegal migration on our country. It is costing us billions of pounds and costing innocent lives, and that is why we are taking action to put a stop to it and make clear once and for all that it is parliament that should decide who comes to this country, not criminal gangs.
“Through this new landmark emergency legislation, we will control our borders, deter people taking perilous journeys across the channel and end the continuous legal challenges filling our courts.
“And we will disapply sections of the Human Rights Act from the key parts of the bill, specifically in the case of Rwanda, to ensure our plan cannot be stopped.
“We have acted quickly to remedy the issues raised by the Supreme Court, proving that Rwanda is not just a safe country, but a modern, prosperous nation, and today we are ending the tactics used by people to cheat the system and betray the British people.
“My message to the vicious people smugglers is clear, there is no point in ruining people’s lives any longer, if an individual comes here illegally, they will be removed.”