With huge costs, mounting opposition and doubts over effectiveness, the Government’s Rwanda Bill is arguably the key underlying force behind the current lack of unity within the Conservative Party. It’s a situation some have labelled as reminiscent of the Theresa May era, where chaos consumed Parliament.

With the General Election looking set for October, and the Conservatives falling behind in the polls, just how much of an issue is Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s approach, and is the issue of immigration overall influential enough to detract voters?

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The Safety of Rwanda Bill

The Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill in substance claims that Rwanda is a country to which it is safe for the UK to relocate asylum seekers. This is despite unanimous rulings from the Supreme Court that Rwanda is in fact not a safe country, as defined by the EU. The proposed legislation also acknowledges that the Home Secretary cannot confirm it is in accordance with the UK’s human rights obligations and seeks to disapply certain sections of the UK’s Human Rights Act.

Parliamentary happenings and progression of the Bill

At the end of 2023, Robert Jenrick resigned as Immigration Minister over the Government’s inability to be ‘tough’ on asylum and immigration policy, stating that the emergency Rwanda legislation ‘does not go far enough’. Although not a shocking move, some have labelled it a personal betrayal by Jenrick, with Jenrick also accusing Sunak of failing to keep his repeated promise to ‘stop the boats’. This move by Jenrick signalled the start of issues with party unity for Sunak and the Conservatives with other so called rebels quick to follow Jenrick’s lead and demonstrate opposition and rebellion.

As the Bill moved through the House and made its way to the Whole House Committee stage, Conservatives, Jenrick and Sir Bill Cash, put forward highly contested amendments that sought to ignore rulings from both domestic and international courts, remove input from the ECHR, and block suspensive claims against removal. The amendments were backed by some 60 Conservative MPs, including the likes of former Home Secretary Suella Braverman. Following this rebellion, former Deputy Chairmen of the Conservative Party Lee Anderson, and Brendan Clarke-Smith, resigned their positions in order to continue voting in favour of these amendments, and thus ultimately against Sunak.

In recent weeks, we have seen the Lords rebut the Rwanda Bill back to the Commons with amendments already rejected by MPs. As expected, delay to the progression of the Bill is likely, with Peers insisting that the legislation must have ‘due regard’ for both domestic and international law. Moreover, it is worth noting that the Conservatives do not have the majority in the Lords; a factor which is likely to further delay progression.

Despite the ongoing ping pong of the Bill between Houses, and it remaining stuck in parliamentary limbo, the Government seemingly had a minor breakthrough when it came to the issue of hotels being used for asylum seekers – a solution that was costing around £8.2 million per day to maintain. The Government announced that by the end of March, the reliance on hotels would be diminished, with 100 hotels being closed for asylum accommodation and reopening back to their normal use. Regardless of this, one day later, No. 10 declared a ‘migration emergency’ following the busiest day of Channel crossings since the start of 2024.

Response to the Bill and public sentiment

Despite the Bill passing its Third Reading with a majority of 44 in the Commons, it has long been apparent that the other parties are not in favour of the Bill as it stands. Labour has repeatedly demanded an impact assessment on the costs of the scheme, and the SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn has accused Sunak of seeking to ‘weaponise some of the most vulnerable’.

Apprehension towards the Bill has spread outside of the Westminster bubble, with 270 charities and expert organisations issuing a joint statement calling on Peers to reject the legislation, deeming it ‘deeply harmful’ and arguing that it ‘threatens the universality of human rights and is likely in breach of international law’. The lack of confidence in the functionality of the Bill is also felt amongst the public, with a recent poll by YouGov revealing that only 1% of voters believe that the Bill will stop the boats. Furthermore, another YouGov poll found that on the issue of immigration, only 10% of the public said the Government were handling immigration ‘well’, and 83% said they were handling it ‘badly’.

Context with other issues affecting voting intention

At the start of the year, the Centre for Progressive Policy’s (CPP) recent Local Economy Tracker revealed a widespread pessimism about the future of local economies – perhaps to be expected, considering that several local authorities have issued section 114 bankruptcy notices last year. A lack of affordable housing was also mentioned as an area of concern by 31% of respondents, and 25% mentioned concerns around poor wages or lack of good jobs.

At the end of February, the latest Ipsos Political Monitor not only revealed the Conservatives have the lowest percentage of voting intention since 1978, but also deduced that asylum and immigration were among the most important issues for voters. However, it is important to note that issues relating to the NHS, inflation and the economy ranked higher than immigration and asylum policy matters here. The NHS being number one priority for voters was also echoed in an article from The Guardian at around this time.

Threat of Reform UK

On 11 March, ex-Conservative Party deputy chairman Lee Anderson defected to Reform UK after refusing to apologise for claiming that Islamists had control over London Mayor Sadiq Khan. Following his move, Anderson took to X (formerly Twitter) where he provided his reasons for the move. Anderson said he believes in ‘protecting our borders and keeping immigration to a minimum’ and that ‘illegal migrants should be removed the same day they arrive here’. At around this time Anderson also took a leaf out of Farage’s book and said ‘I want our country back’. Considering that Anderson already resigned from his position within the party due to disagreement over the content of the Bill. His decision to leave the Conservatives could also be partly due to this.

Reform UK is a party founded by former UKIP leader Nigel Farage as the ‘Brexit Party’ in 2018. The party was re-registered as Reform UK in January 2021 and Richard Tice replaced Farage as he stepped down. With Reform’s slogan being ‘Let’s Make Britain Great’ and with its hard line on immigration, it has long been compared to, or deemed similar in tone to, the approach and policies of Donald Trump.

Given that immigration is currently one of the bigger challenges facing Sunak, it seems likely that Reform UK could prove a realistic threat to the Conservatives, but also Sunak’s credibility. It is also worth noting that its predecessor, the Brexit Party did not stand candidates against sitting Conservative MPs in 2019 due to an agreement with the then Conservative leader, Boris Johnson. Thus, with Reform UK candidates standing in every seat they offer an option to voters that didn’t exist in 2019.

Alongside this, recent YouGov polling found that in terms of voting intention, Labour is leading with 47 points, the Conservatives have 20 points, and Reform UK is polling not far short of the Conservatives with 13 points. Given that the same data taken in the middle of March last year saw Reform with just six points and the Conservatives with 27 points, the current ruling party are right to be concerned about where support is going, and for what reasons. In addition to this, the number of Conservative MPs standing down is the highest ahead of any General Election since 1997, with 63 announcing they are either not seeking re-election in the current constituency or standing down from Parliament.

Possible impacts of the Rwanda Bill

Since the introduction of the Rwanda Bill, unity within Sunak’s party has diminished and polling has shown a consistent decrease in support for the Conservatives. Meanwhile, Reform UK has taken advantage of Sunak’s inability to convince his party, Parliament and the voters that this Bill will work, and are set to take votes from the Conservatives. However, it is also key to remember that polling has suggested that immigration and asylum policy are not the biggest issues facing voters at this time, and with issues relating to the NHS, inflation and the economy ranking higher in priority for voters it is clear to see a discrepancy exists here between the public’s priority concerns and the current concerns facing the Conservatives.

Despite this, it is wise to be apprehensive about the Rwanda Bill and the Government’s current stance on immigration policy for several reasons of principle:

(1) The Supreme Court unanimously held that Rwanda was not a safe country to which asylum seekers should be relocated – the Bill is extreme in that it directly challenges a very clear ruling of this.

(2) While the Bill seeks to disapply certain human rights obligations in domestic proceedings, it does not alter the fact that the UK still has obligations here under international law.

(3) It is fair to argue that this idea of limiting or de-legitimising the role of such courts is often associated with authoritarian governments and can be criticised for undermining concepts such as judicial independence and the separation of powers.

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