Rishi Sunak’s target of flying out asylum seekers to Rwanda by next spring is in doubt, with opposition parties and some Conservative peers having pledged to try to block emergency legislation intended to rescue the plan.
In another blow to the prime minister, Suella Braverman, the home secretary that Sunak sacked on Monday, dismissed his ideas as “magical thinking”, setting out her own rival plan to make sure removals begin swiftly.
Downing Street will introduce a bill to parliament a week on Monday, after next week’s autumn statement, which is expected to declare Rwanda a safe country for asylum processing, contradicting the supreme court ruling on Wednesday.
This Monday, Downing Street will publish a planned treaty with Rwanda intended to provide full guarantees that asylum seekers will be properly treated when sent there.
No 10 plans to fast-track the bill through the Commons and Lords. Nevertheless, rapid progress would depend on cooperation from opposition parties. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and SNP are all expected to push back against the proposal.
While the Conservatives have a working majority of 56 in the Commons, matters could be more tricky in the Lords where opposition peers are likely to be joined by some Conservative members who are alarmed by both the policy and the proposal to rush through a law overturning a supreme court decision.
“This will be blocked, or at least held up,” one Conservative peer said. “I don’t think many Conservatives will vote against it. But lots could stay away. The whips have already used up a lot of goodwill.”
Another Tory peer said: “This is going to be a wildly unpopular piece of legislation. It’s not just the subject, it’s also the idea there won’t be proper scrutiny. A lot of people will do everything they can to block it.”
Speaking on Thursday, Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor, declined to echo Sunak’s target of flights leaving by spring. “We can’t guarantee that. We have to pass legislation in the House of Commons and sign a new international treaty with Rwanda.”
Any delays to the bill would put Sunak under intense pressure from already restive rightwing Conservatives, who want the prime minister to take more drastic action.
A number of Tory MPs, estimated to be more than a dozen, are understood to have written jointly to Sunak demanding that the emergency legislation included a “notwithstanding clause”, which would allow the government to unilaterally ignore rulings based on the European convention on human rights (ECHR).
In an article for the Daily Telegraph, Braverman endorsed this idea, saying Sunak must be willing to ignore both the ECHR and UN refugee convention, calling for parliament to sit over Christmas to pass the necessary bill in time.
Such tactics, or the idea of the UK fully withdrawing from the ECHR, would be seen as unacceptable to Tories nearer the centre of the party, potentially including James Cleverly, the home secretary, and David Cameron, the new foreign secretary.
George Osborne, who was once Cameron’s chancellor and close political ally, said on Thursday that the return by Cameron to government made this even less likely. “The option of going in to the general election saying we’re going to pull out of the ECHR and throw the challenge to Labour … I think that’s basically now off the table because David Cameron is foreign secretary,” Osborne told the Political Currency podcast.
Sunak’s spokesperson said No 10 believed the legislation and the treaty were “the fastest route through to getting [asylum] flights in the air” – through trying to close down routes to a legal challenge. Downing Street said the legislation would close down “systemic” challenges such as a judicial review, but it remained unclear whether individuals facing deportation could launch a court case.
Sunak would, his spokesperson said, urge MPs and peers to back the law because it was what voters wanted. “We believe we are acting to fulfil the wishes of the public, and we are sure that parliament will want to respect that, but obviously they will be able to scrutinise the detail,” he said.
Asked what evidence the government could present to show that the public did want the flights to take off, he added: “My belief is that the Rwanda migration partnership remains something that the public wants us to deliver on.”