The austere setting of the Supreme Court became the latest forum to intensify the prime minister’s political woes this morning as it declared that the government’s flagship Rwanda deportations plan is “unlawful”.
The rationale behind the ruling was plain: Lord Reed explained that there are “substantial grounds” to believe that refugees sent to Rwanda by the UK would be at risk of return to their countries of origin.
The prime minister responded quickly in a statement. “This was not the outcome we wanted”, he explained.
The court’s ruling is disaster for the government on its own terms: so much money has been splurged on the soon-to-be-ripe fruits of the Rwanda policy — and, worse for Sunak, since becoming PM he has consistently stoked expectations over the plan.
Of course, when the negotiations on the Rwanda plan were completed in Spring 2022, it was Priti Patel — home secretary under Boris Johnson — who jet-setted to Kigali to sign the new asylum accord. Well over a year later and Patel languishes in the Conservative Party wilderness; Johnson has fared even worse — he now scribbles a weekly column for the Daily Mail in his parliamentary exile. But Sunak believed their deportations policy was his generous inheritance.
Still, the political rationale behind the Rwanda scheme operates no matter who the revolving door of Conservative governance has swivelled into No 10. The scheme works by signalling the government’s intent on “stopping the boats” — since January, one-fifth of the prime minister’s pre-election offering (and rather more salient than halving inflation). The plan is deliberately controversial; indeed, for the purest practitioners of the “stop the small boats” creed, the more opponents howl, the more virtuous the quest becomes.
But the scheme’s new noble dissenters — who this morning issued a stunning judgement on the policy on purely legal terms — are five opponents the PM did not want.
And the political tumult that now flows from the verdict has been heightened by Suella Braverman’s sacking as home secretary on Monday and her subsequent scathing missive.
In her letter, Braverman accused Sunak of “magical thinking” over the policy. She said the PM had “failed to prepare any sort of credible ‘Plan B’”, adding: “I wrote to you on multiple occasions setting out what a credible Plan B would entail, and making clear that unless you pursue these proposals, in the event of defeat, there is no hope of flights this side of an election. I received no reply from you”.
Lord Reed had barely left the Supreme Court chamber before the New Conservatives, a collection of MPs from the party right elected since the Brexit referendum and associated with Braverman, entered a meeting to discuss their response. Miriam Cates, the group’s co-chair and Sir Bill Cash, a leading figure in the European Research Group, were present — and it heard from Lord Frost, Boris Johnson’s Brexit negotiator and perennial critic of Rishi Sunak.
The meeting came after the group issued their own scathing rebuke of Monday’s rishuffle.
“The Conservative Party now looks like it is deliberately walking away from the coalition of voters who brought us into power with a large majority in 2019”, read a joint statement by New Conservative co-chairs Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger. This is the context into which the Supreme court’s Rwanda ruling has been received.
The anger on the Conservative right is visible, too, in Brendan Clarke-Smith MP’s tweet reacting to the verdict, as he shared a photo of a notorious Daily Mail front page splash printed after the same court ruled that ministers could not use the royal prerogative to begin the Brexit process. “ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE”, it read.
Lee Anderson, the Conservative deputy chair who at the last minute reneged on his plan to become a founding member of the New Conservatives because of his Party role, told reporters that the government should send illegal immigrants “straight back”.
“Put the planes in the air. Ignore the laws and send them straight back”, is his proposed “Plan B”.
As for Dominic Cummings, who has had run-ins with the court in the past after it blocked his masterplan to prorogue parliament to enable a “no deal” Brexit, he tweeted: “A serious government will … have to rewrite the primary legislation to remove the Supreme Court’s power to block the first role of government — security from violence”.
The knee-jerk responses of Cummings, Anderson, Kruger, Cates and Clarke-Smith are one thing. But, more substantively, calls for the government to quit the European Convention on Human Rights will now undoubtedly escalate in the wake of the Court’s ruling. Indeed, speaking after the New Conservative MPs’ post-ruling conclave, Danny Kruger said the government needed to bring in legislation to override the ECHR, or leave it altogether.
He said: “We need to introduce legislation to insist that… the principle of the Rwanda policy is legitimate and shall have immediate effect”
“Either by through a notwithstanding clause, the general application not just of the ECHR… or through a series of legislative measures to withdraw us from the ECHR and to insist on British sovereignty.”
Former cabinet minister Sir Simon Clarke echoed Kruger’s concerns: “I think we are going to have to pass emergency legislation at a minimum to set out that the will of parliament will apply notwithstanding the ECHR and the associated conventions that the justices referenced”.
“But we may also need to consider, if that is not legally viable, withdrawal from the ECHR.I think we are going to have to pass emergency legislation at a minimum to set out that the will of parliament will apply notwithstanding the ECHR and the associated conventions that the justices referenced”.
“But we may also need to consider, if that is not legally viable, withdrawal from the ECHR”.
However, as Lord Reed outlined in detail and at pains today, simply quitting the convention would not see planes leave UK soil bound for Rwanda. He said that his court’s verdict was based not only on the provisions of the ECHR, but also various UN treaties.
There are other soberer takes, of course. Natalie Elphicke, whose opinion is taken seriously on “stopping the boats” because of her status as the MP for Dover and Deal, tweeted: “The Supreme’s Court decision on Rwanda means the policy is effectively at an end. No planes will be leaving and we now need to move forward”.
If the government loses this case, it is unlikely that Britain will deport any asylum seekers to Rwanda before the General Election. Yet the government may challenge that assumption. If the headline “COURT DEFEAT LEAVES GOVERNMENT RWANDA PLAN IN TATTERS” is unattractive, a well-briefed, sympathetic newspaper may be willing to run “I CAN RESCUE RWANDA PLAN, SAYS DEFIANT PM” to declare that a fightback is already underway.
This offers a potential way forward for the prime minister rhetorically, at least. And at prime minister’s questions this afternoon, he hinted at the outline of a new policy approach: a renegotiated deal with Rwanda — to be bolstered by his newly-discovered willingness to “revisit domestic legal frameworks” and the UK’s international relationships.
But it is far from clear that any statement from Sunak, who as chancellor was reported to have questioned the effectiveness of the policy, will quiet his post-Rwanda ruling psychodrama.
Thus, the prime minister’s political dilemma is this: he needs to find a Rwanda “Plan B” which can satiate his riled-up party right, while adhering to the court’s decision and not alienating his party’s moderate voices — many of whom populate his new cabinet. Squaring this circle will be nothing less than the hardest task of Sunak’s premiership.
Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.
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