(Bloomberg) -- The UK immigration minister resigned over Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s latest proposal to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, underscoring concerns that the anti-immigration plan doesn’t go far enough to pacify a rebellion in the ruling party.
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Robert Jenrick quit his post on Wednesday, just hours after the government published a bill that aimed to ensure that ministers could finally proceed with a controversial deportation program that UK courts have deemed unlawful. Jenrick, an erstwhile backer of Sunak’s, warned the measure didn’t go far enough to deter asylum-seekers who have crossed the English Channel in increasing numbers in recent years.
“I refuse to be yet another politician who makes promises on immigration to the British public but does not keep them,” Jenrick, 41, said in a letter to Sunak, published on X. He branded the draft law a “triumph of hope over experience,” and said the UK needed stronger protections to “end the merry-go-rounds of legal challenges that risk paralyzing the scheme and negating its intended deterrent.”
Jenrick’s departure deals a major blow to Sunak, whose efforts to strike a balance between the competing demands of centrists and more right-leaning members of his Conservative Party were welcomed by some potential critics. While Jenrick was once a high-profile backer of Sunak, he had recently distanced himself from the prime minister, especially since he ousted his populist home secretary, Suella Braverman, last month.
One Cabinet member said Jenrick’s departure was unexpected and angered moderates who had been willing to compromise with the right. His resignation prompted immediate questions about whether he could mount a leadership challenge or prompt more Tory backbenchers to petition for a confidence vote in the prime minister, said the Cabinet member, who asked not to be identified while discussing internal deliberations.
“If the immigration minister, who is a good man, has resigned over this bill, that is deeply worrying,” Conservative MP Mark Francois told the Commons late on Wednesday. Another right-wing Tory, Andrea Jenkyns, said on X that Jenrick’s departure may mark the “death knell” for Sunak’s leadership.
Unite or Die
The prime minister also appeared aware of the stakes. After publishing the legislation, he told a gathering of Conservative backbenchers that the party must unite behind the bill or die, according to two participants.
In response to Jenrick late Wednesday, Sunak said that the UK couldn’t go any further because Rwanda had objected to proposals that may be deemed to breach international law. “There would be no point in passing a law that would leave us with nowhere to send people to,” Sunak said.
Under the draft bill, the government would be able to advance its deportation policy regardless of objections that it might breach the UK Human Rights Act and court decisions interpreting the European Convention on Human Rights. It stopped short of “disapplying” the ECHR itself, as demanded by some right-wing Tories.
Wednesday’s bill is part of a two-pronged approach by Sunak to implement the Rwanda deportation plan. Since being advanced by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s administration in 2022, it’s been repeatedly held up by European and UK courts, culminating in its rejection last month as “unlawful” by the Supreme Court.
The first part of the plan was completed Tuesday, when Home Secretary James Cleverly signed a treaty with Rwanda providing guarantees deportees wouldn’t be returned to their home countries.
Jenrick quickly moved up the ministerial ladder after entering Parliament in a by-election in 2014. He served as Treasury exchequer secretary under Theresa May and entered cabinet as communities secretary under Johnson, before being demoted in a 2021 reshuffle.
He was later appointed health minister by Liz Truss and became immigration minister when Sunak took office in October 2022. He faced criticism in July when it emerged he had ordered murals of cartoon characters to be removed at a children’s asylum seeker reception center in Kent, southeast England.
His resignation comes at a tricky time for Sunak as he ramps up efforts to win over voters and convince them he leads a united party ahead of an election expected next year. With the Tories trailing the opposition Labour Party by 20 points in recent polls, Sunak also faces a challenge from the right by Reform UK, the party founded with support from Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage.
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Sunak had made “stopping the boats” full of migrants arriving from France one of his five key pledges this year, and he’s expended considerable political capital trying to bring the Rwanda policy to fruition. The government argues the prospect of being sent to Africa will deter immigrants from making the journey across the English Channel.
Cleverly on Tuesday argued the new treaty with Rwanda would allay the concerns expressed by UK courts including that deportees faced a risk of “refoulement,” or being forcibly returned by Rwanda to their home countries.
The bill aims to designate Rwanda a safe destination. In a preamble to the legislation, however, Cleverly said he was “unable” to make a statement guaranteeing it was compatible with ECHR rights, adding “but the government nevertheless wishes the house to proceed with the bill.”
Sunak told Bloomberg while en route to a meeting with Tory backbenchers Wednesday that he was happy with the bill and didn’t regard it as a gamble. Some on the right wanted Sunak to effectively opt the UK out of the ECHR on asylum cases, while centrists favored a middle option that would only disapply UK laws, while still heeding the country’s international obligations.
Tories from both factions emerged from the meeting with Sunak broadly expressing satisfaction with the bill, although some said they were reserving judgment until they’d had time to analyze it further. The One Nation caucus of centrists issued a statement saying they welcomed the government’s decision “to continue to meet the UK’s international commitments which uphold the rule of law.”
Meanwhile former Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg, one of the leading voices on the party’s right, told Bloomberg of the bill that “the initial reading, but I’m no lawyer, is encouraging.”
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