Defiant peers have rejected Rishi Sunak’s warning not to frustrate “the will of the people” by opposing his flagship Rwanda legislation, as the prime minister heads for a showdown with the House of Lords.
The PM said his controversial deportation plan is an “urgent national priority” and told the upper chamber it is “now time to pass this bill”.
But peers described his comments as “vacuous” and said that they showed he did not understand the role of the Lords, as they warned him not to try to “ram” his legislation through.
In a sign of the depth of opposition the prime minister faces, leading lawyer and crossbench peer Alex Carlile denounced the bill as “a step towards totalitarianism”.
The former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation also accused ministers of trying to place themselves “to an unacceptable level above the law”, as he warned that the integrity of the legal system was “under attack because of internal political quarrelling in the Conservative Party”.
The fight to save Mr Sunak’s embattled plan to stop small boat crossings comes as a new YouGov poll shows that support for the Conservatives is at its lowest level since Liz Truss’s final days in Downing Street, with just 10 per cent of voters under the age of 50 saying they would back the party.
Mr Sunak suffered a blow on Tuesday when two deputy chairs of the Tory party resigned in order to support amendments designed to toughen up his Rwanda plan.
However, the prime minister now faces stiff opposition from the Lords, who could stall his plans significantly and place in jeopardy any hopes of getting flights airborne by the spring.
During a hastily arranged press conference in Downing Street on Thursday morning, Mr Sunak refused to publicly commit to a timeline.
Asked twice if he could guarantee that flights would take off before the general election, he said the question was “for the Labour Party and the House of Lords”, although his official spokesperson later said the government’s aim was still to put the plan into action this spring.
Mr Sunak also urged peers to “do the right thing” and back his Rwanda legislation.
It is now “past time to start the flights”, he said, as he accused Labour of having “no plan”.
He also said he was prepared to disregard injunctions issued by the European Court of Human Rights, despite warnings that doing so could breach international law.
Mr Sunak is trying to keep the scheme alive after the Supreme Court ruled it was unlawful. The basis of the policy is that migrants who cross the Channel in small boats will be sent to Rwanda rather than being allowed to seek asylum in the UK.
The new legislation, alongside a recently signed treaty with Kigali, is designed to make the plan legally watertight by having parliament declare Rwanda a safe country.
Following the press conference, Lord Carlile described the prime minister’s comments as “vacuous” and “banal”.
He denounced the legislation as ”exceptionally malign” and said it would be legitimate for peers to put it “to the test, to amend it, and above all to ensure it does not damage the reputation of our great UK jurisdictions across the world, which this bill will if it is passed in its present form”.
He said it was right for peers to send it back to the Commons – in a process known as “parliamentary ping pong” – and that they should do so “repeatedly if necessary”.
He added: “The Lords is not in the business of killing bills that come from the House of Commons. Our first task is to try to make it work. But there are some of us who might well consider killing it if what emerges is not acceptable under UK legal norms.”
Former pensions minister Ros Altmann told The Independent it would be unwise for Mr Sunak to try to “ram” his Rwanda bill through the Lords.
It is the upper chamber’s “national duty” to “properly scrutinise, debate and discuss” legislation, she said, as she urged the PM to not “start overriding the House of Lords”, adding: “We don’t want to hear what you have to say.”
Former child refugee and Labour peer Alf Dubs told The Independent that the prime minister’s exhortations to the Lords to “get on” and pass his Rwanda bill were “outrageous”.
Lord Dubs said Mr Sunak was “politically illiterate” for piling pressure on peers, adding that it is not a matter of “party politics” but one of “basic constitutional principles”.
He also attacked the prime minister’s claim that the Rwanda policy is the “will of the people”. “Politicians claim that when they have no good arguments left,” he said.
It came as the UK’s statistics watchdog criticised Mr Sunak for his repeated claim to have “cleared” the asylum backlog – and warned that the assertion could erode trust in the government.
Sir Robert Chote, the chair of the UK Statistics Authority, said voters may have felt “misled”.
The prime minister was accused of trying to “cook the books” and of promoting a “barefaced lie” following the assertion, which was made despite figures showing that nearly 100,000 migrants were still waiting for a decision.
Polling guru Professor Sir John Curtice also warned Mr Sunak that voters were likely to be more concerned with the state of the economy and the cost of living than with immigration at the next election.
Speaking at a briefing for the charity Citizens Advice, Prof Curtice said that voters are in a state of “deep, deep economic pessimism” and are still punishing the Tory party for Liz Truss’s “mini-Budget”, which caused the pound to fall sharply and led to a spike in mortgage rates.
He said: “The economy and the cost of living does matter in the electoral contest to come … It will probably become more important for voters than immigration, on which the government has focused over the course of the last week”.