Rishi Sunak has rejected calls by dozens of Conservative MPs to toughen up his asylum plans further by ignoring rulings from the European court of human rights over the deportation of asylum seekers to Rwanda.
The prime minister sidestepped questions in the Commons over whether he would be willing to withdraw from the European convention on human rights, saying he was delivering legislation allowing people who had arrived illegally to be removed from the UK.
However, Downing Street said it opposed a short bill introduced on Wednesday by the Tory backbencher Jonathan Gullis to allow the government to remove asylum seekers even if that went against against the judgment of the European court, which oversees the implementation of the convention, or other international law.
The proposal, which Gullis said would ensure “parliament, not unaccountable foreign judges in Europe, have the final say” on the UK’s asylum system, was backed by the former prime minister, Boris Johnson, and other senior Tory MPs, including Priti Patel, the former home secretary and architect of the Rwanda scheme.
In practice, there was little prospect of the bill becoming law but it once again threw a spotlight on the issue, putting pressure on the prime minister to make good on previous promises that he would not allow the ECHR to “inhibit our ability to properly control our borders”.
It follows Sunak’s pledge to “abolish” the backlog of asylum claims by the end of 2023 and set out a new plan to tackle the migration crisis, including a “small boats operational command” and a returns agreement with Albania.
Gullis’s bid was rejected by MPs by 188 votes to 69, but the scale of support it attracted from the Conservative benches highlights deep splits within the party, with dozens of MPs, many of them representing red wall seats and enough to overturn the prime minister’s majority, pressing for him to toughen up his plans.
Suella Braverman, the home secretary, said at the Conservative party’s conference in October that she was in favour of withdrawing from the European convention, while other Tory MPs fear it would undermine the Good Friday agreement, which is based on the UK remaining party to the convention.
Alison Thewliss, the SNP’s home affairs spokesperson at Westminster, told the Commons that Gullis’s proposal was “dehumanising”, coming after the deaths of four migrants crossing the Channel in small boats.
“At this time, in this moment, when four people have died and 40 people have been rescued in the Channel, [Gullis] has chosen to bring forward this offensive, grubby, dangerous wee bill. He should be ashamed of himself and if he had any sense and compassion he would have withdrawn it today,” she said.