Rishi Sunak’s proposed bill – which hopes to fulfil his promise to “stop the boats” – is part of a significant gamble which aims to pull off an unexpected Conservative win at the next general election.
The prime minister is claiming he can break the business model of human traffickers by sending asylum seekers to central Africa in their thousands.
If all the pieces fall into place – and his supporters admit there are many pieces – the bill will pass through parliament, legal challenges against the plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda will be dismissed by UK and Strasbourg courts, the Rwandan government will build homes for thousands of asylum seekers and an airline will be found to fly them.
His team have taken some hope from a fall in the number of Albanian people travelling by small boat to the UK after a deportation deal was struck with the government in Tirana just before Christmas. This is evidence, they say, that people entering the UK will change their behaviour if they see planes taking off for Kigali.
Even if the plan fails, Sunak’s allies say, voters in crucial “red wall” seats and beyond will remember that the Conservatives were willing to take a hard line on immigration in the face of Labour opposition.
But speak to Sunak’s many critics, both inside and outside the Conservative party, and they believe that the bill could – in the long term – damage the Tories if it fails to materialise.
Tory former ministers have said Sunak’s plan is destined to fail, and is ultimately a cynical ploy to create clear blue water between the Conservative party and Labour.
“There is no evidence that the Rwanda plan will succeed unless tens of thousands of asylum seekers are sent there. And there is no capacity in Rwanda to do that,” one said.
Labour plans to combat the Conservative position by hammering home the fact there have been repeated promises to curb migration since 2010, as the numbers who have crossed the Channel in small boats has soared.
The Conservatives under Boris Johnson passed a law nine months ago which they claimed would stop the boats, end hotel use and penalise people for trying to claim asylum.
Instead, boat crossings increased to a record 45,000 compared with just a few hundred people three years ago, the numbers held in hotels went up, asylum delays increased and only 1% of last year’s cases have so far been decided.
Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, also plans to argue that the bill is a “traffickers’ charter” because it prevents women forced into sex work from accessing support.
It will also criminalise people from Afghanistan who worked alongside the British army who have no alternative route to the UK other than by boat.
The bill is expected to face tougher tests in the Commons before it is passed to the Lords and into law. It faced criticism from both wings of Sunak’s own party in the hours before being debated on Monday, with MPs from the right receiving reassurances that the European courts will not be able to intervene to stop flights to Rwanda in future.
Meanwhile, the Conservative former minister Tim Loughton told the Commons he would push his plans for required safe and legal routes to a vote unless there were “substantial reassurances” from the government.
“I will be prepared to move to a vote unless I can have some substantial reassurances from the government … it makes a requirement on the face of the bill that there will be safe and legal routes as part of this legislation going through,” he said.