Rishi Sunak insisted he can ‘deliver’ on his vow to Stop the Boats tonight after dramatically seeing off a Tory revolt on his Rwanda plan.
The emergency legislation intended to get deportation flights up and running passed its first hurdle in the Commons by 313 to 269 – a majority of 44.
The result came after the PM spent an extraordinary high-stakes day at Westminster wooing wavering MPs, including one-on-one meetings, as he tried to defuse right-wing unrest.
With the clock ticking down to the votes, Mr Sunak was told the so-called ‘five families’ of MPs on the Tory right would not back the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill.
However, the Commons list shows none rejected the Bill outright, with all instead opting to abstain in the hope of amending the legislation at a later date.
Around 24 seem to have deliberately sat out the division, including Suella Braverman and former immigration minister Robert Jenrick. Figures are not certain as some MPs had other reasons for not voting, such as illness.
It would have needed around 29 Tories voting against or 57 abstentions to overturn the government majority.
In reality the figure would have had to be higher as five independents supported the party line. They included ex-Tory Peter Bone, who has just returned from being suspended from the House.
A defeat on the totemic policy could well have been terminal for Mr Sunak – although he still faces a massive test to push the legislation through the rest of the Parliamentary process.
A rebel source said: ‘This bill has been allowed to live another day. But without amendments it will be killed next month. It’s now up to the government to decide what it wants to do.’
Posting on social media after the announcement, Mr Sunak said: ‘The British people should decide who gets to come to this country – not criminal gangs or foreign courts.
‘That’s what this Bill delivers. We will now work to make it law so that we can get flights going to Rwanda and stop the boats.’
The emergency legislation intended to get Rwanda deportation flights up and running passed its first hurdle in the Commons by 313 to 269 – a majority of 44
Rishi Sunak (pictured at Cabinet this morning) dramatically saw off a revolt on his Rwanda plan tonight as rebels baulked at prompting a full-blown crisis
Posting on social media after the announcement, Mr Sunak said he can ‘deliver’ on his vow to Stop the Boats
Tory MPs sitting on the top left of the picture as the division took place appeared to be abstaining
The government had a relatively comfortable margin of 44 in the second reading vote
Before the vote, Mark Francois, the chair of the European Research Group, said: ‘We have decided collectively that we cannot support the Bill tonight because of its many omissions.’
He added that Sir Bill Cash, the senior Conservative backbencher, was expected to come forward with proposals to toughen the Bill in the coming weeks.
‘The Prime Minister has been telling colleagues today he is prepared to entertain tightening the Bill,’ Mr Francois added.
‘We very much hope… those amendments may yet be accepted. If they are not and the Bill remains unamended again, collectively, we agreed to reserve the right to vote against it at Third Reading.’
One former minister who had been pushing for the Bill to be bolstered predicted that it will ‘just about get through’.
However, hardliners have been incensed by the government’s tactics during a frantic day of coaxing and strong-arming.
One senior right-winger told MailOnline that whips were ‘winding people up’ by being ‘on transmit rather than receive’.
Even though the Bill has cleared its second reading – typically a straightforward stage – Mr Sunak will still face a stormy ride later in the process as amendments are tabled.
Mr Jenrick led Tory opposition to the legislation during a bad-tempered Commons debate this afternoon.
The MP, who plunged the PM into chaos by quitting as immigration minister last week, branded parts of the emergency legislation ‘sophistry’ and warned it will not work.
He said that tougher action is needed because ‘the public are watching’ and will not tolerate failure.
Labour is claiming that the UK is now set to hand the African nation £400million after Home Secretary James Cleverly confirmed another £50million is due next year.
But Mr Cleverly mounted a robust defence in the House, saying the government is determined to ‘stop the boats’ and ‘that is what voting for this legislation means’.
Mr Sunak was facing arguably the biggest test of his premiership as the day kicked off.
An hour-long breakfast summit at No10 – where potential rebels including Lee Anderson, the Conservative deputy chairman, Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger were served bacon rolls – failed to break the deadlock this morning.
In a sign of alarm among Tory whips, Net Zero minister Graham Stuart was dragged back from the COP28 summit in Abu Dhabi to vote, before heading back to the Middle East in a near-7,000 mile round trip.
MPs on one Commons committee were ordered to cancel a Caribbean visit in order to take part in the showdown.
Mark Francois, the chair of the European Research Group, said MPs on the Tory right were withholding support for the Rwanda legislation
Robert Jenrick led Tory attacks on Rishi Sunak’s Rwanda plans today during a bad-tempered Commons debate
Home Secretary James Cleverly mounted a robust defence, saying the government is determined to ‘stop the boats’ and ‘that is what voting for this legislation means’
Mr Sunak seemed in good spirits as he was spotted outside Downing Street earlier
A Commons defeat today would have marked the first time that a Government had failed to get legislation past a first reading since 1986, when Margaret Thatcher wanted to scrap restrictive Sunday trading laws.
Mr Sunak is said to have refused to give ground at the breakfast meeting. After the discussions he took to social media to insist that his party must ‘back this bill’.
A No10 source stressed that the text as it stands had been ‘drafted with close attention to detail’ and flatly rejected suggestions that the Bill could be pulled.
Some right-wingers are concerned that Labour will abstain if the legislation gets to third reading, effectively robbing them of their opportunity to halt it.
No10 has been playing down the prospect of amending the Bill at a later stage, arguing that the text goes as far as possible without breaching international law.
A source said of Mr Sunak wooing his backbenchers this afternoon: ‘He’s talking to lots of people.
‘No one is taking any votes for granted.
‘We are keen to work with colleagues on this.’
But one senior right-winger told MailOnline: ‘The government are going about this completely wrong.
‘They are on transmit rather than receive, which is just winding people up.’
Another source claimed chief whip Simon Hart cancelled a meeting with rebellious MPs that had been due to happen at 5pm so he could hold an ’emergency meeting’ with No10.
In the House, Mr Jenrick said: ‘This is not a bad Bill but it is not the best Bill. I want this Bill to work.
‘The test of this policy is not ‘is it the strongest Bill we’ve done?’, it’s not ‘is it a good compromise?’, it’s ‘will it work?’.
‘That is all the public care about. They don’t care about Rwanda as a scheme, they care about stopping the boats. And we are sent here to do that for them.
‘I will never elevate contested notions of international law over the interests of my constituents, over vital national interests like national security, like border security.
‘This Bill could be so much better, let’s make it better. Let’s make it work.’
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper branded the proposal ‘extortionately expensive’ after she questioned whether ministers have made further commitments beyond the cash already spent on the grounded scheme.
The Home Office confirmed £240million has been paid to Rwanda so far with another payment of £50million anticipated in 2024/25.
No asylum seeker has been sent to Rwanda so far as flights remain grounded because of a series of legal setbacks.
The National Audit Office (NAO) will publish a report next year on the costs of the scheme so far and estimated spending in the future.
Former Cabinet ministers Dame Priti Patel, Ben Wallace and David Davis had been mobilised as Downing Street desperately worked to contain the chaos, delivering a stark message that defeat for Mr Sunak could collapse the Government and force a general election.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer twisted the knife as he delivered a speech earlier today, saying that Mr Sunak must go to the country if he lost tonight’s vote.
MPs Neil O’Brien, Marco Longhi, Jill Mortimer, Lia Nici and Alexander Stafford were also seen arriving for the meeting in No10 this morning.
According to a Conservative MP who was there, Mr Sunak avoided telling them he would amend the legislation.
‘I think a lot of colleagues are falsely putting their hopes on amendments and will end up missing the opportunity to kill the Bill,’ they said.
He added that he expected the Labour Party to abstain on the Bill’s third reading, meaning there would not be enough votes to block it even with a rebellion.
The MP said: ‘Some colleagues are deluding themselves if they think that they will have another shot.’
A No10 source said: ‘It was a very useful meeting to hear MPs thoughts and discuss their concerns. The bill has been drafted with close attention to detail, with colleagues input helping to shape the legislation,’ the source said.
‘The tests set for the bill have been met and we will continue to listen to and engage with colleagues across the party as it passes through parliament. This bill will work and will do what we need it to do.’
Kicking off the second reading debate in the House, Mr Cleverly said: ‘This Government is stopping the boats. Arrivals are down by a third this year as illegal entries are on the rise elsewhere in Europe.’
He said small boat arrivals are up by 80 per cent in the Mediterranean but down by a third across the English Channel.
The Home Secretary outlined steps the Government has taken so far, saying: ‘These things are having an impact, and a positive one.’
He said returns agreements and cooperation agreements had been signed with other countries, saying 50 hotels are being ‘returned to the local communities’, and said the asylum backlog has gone from 92,000 to less than 20,000.
He added: ‘We have sent back 22,000 illegal migrants. And the UK’s arrangement with Albania proves that deterrents work.’
As the whipping operation became increasingly frantic, the PM’s official spokesman confirmed Mr Stuart had returned from COP28 to attend Parliament, but would then be going back to Dubai.
Asked about the carbon emissions from the flights, the spokesman said: ‘This Government is not anti-flying. We don’t lecture the public to that regard. The most important thing is the outcomes of Cop, which Minister Stuart is obviously leading for the UK on.
‘Ministers have a number of roles, the negotiations continue and he will return to Cop.’
Tory MPs include Jonathan Gullis, Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger (left, second left third left) arrived at No10 this morning for talks with the PM
The Safety of Rwanda Bill has been drawn up in response to last month’s Supreme Court ruling that sending Channel migrants to the east African state would be unlawful.
The court found that Rwanda’s asylum system was potentially unsafe because there was a risk that migrants could be sent back to their home countries where they might be ill-treated.
Ministers signed a treaty with Rwanda last week stating that migrants sent from the UK will not be deported to their home countries.
Today’s legislation would declare in law that Rwanda is safe, ruling out further court challenges to the principle of the scheme. It also excludes the plan from parts of the Human Rights Act.
But to the dismay of critics, individual migrants will still be able to lodge legal appeals.
An assessment by the ERG’s ‘star chamber’ of lawyers said the new law does not go ‘far enough to deliver the policy as intended’.
It warned it would be ‘much easier’ than the Government thinks for individual migrants to frustrate their removal – and said individual claims should be banned.
But Mr Sunak says strengthening the proposals by even ‘an inch’ would cause the Rwandan government to pull out, triggering the collapse of the scheme.
The 100-strong One Nation group of moderate MPs said it would back the Government. Chairman Damian Green said: ‘The most important thing at this stage is to support the Bill despite our real concerns.’
It comes after the Home Office today published a summary of its official ‘legal position’ on the Rwanda plan in a sign of government jitters
The five-page summary attempted to knock down the case for tougher measures advocated by Tory MPs including former home secretary Suella Braverman.
The document warns that blocking the ability of migrants to bring legal action would be ‘a breach of international law and alien to the UK’s constitutional tradition of liberty and justice’.
It adds that even in wartime, access to courts was maintained ‘in order that individuals can uphold their rights and freedoms’.
The document went on: ‘This is a novel and contentious policy, and the UK and Rwanda are the first countries in the world to enact it together.
‘There are risks inherent in such an innovative approach but there is a clear lawful basis on which a responsible government may proceed.’
But the summary said moves to block every court challenge ‘would mean that there would be no respectable argument that the Bill is compatible with international law’.
It added: ‘It would also go against Rwanda’s own explicit wishes that our partnership remains compliant with international law, and likely collapse the scheme.’
As a result, the Bill must allow very limited scope for migrants to bring legal challenges against being sent to Rwanda, based on ‘wholly exceptional individual circumstances’, it said.
The document predicted hardly any migrants would be able to lodge legal action under the ‘exceptionally narrow’ grounds for claims, such as very rare medical conditions.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: ‘As the legal advice sets out, we think we have a tough and strong piece of legislation which will achieve our objectives.’
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