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U.K. Leader Rishi Sunak’s Favorability Rating Slips to New Low Amid Rwanda Bill Backlash

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U.K Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s costly and controversial Rwanda asylum scheme passed its first test in Parliament on Dec. 12, but faces an uncertain future amid pushback on all sides.

The House of Commons voted 313-269 in favor of Sunak’s flagship bill that would send asylum seekers to Rwanda to process their claims. However, Sunak must win another vote in January as his own party members remain divided over whether the measure is too tough or not tough enough.

The long-brewing Conservatives’ plan, aimed at deterring people from migrating in small boats, was ruled “unlawful” by the U.K. Supreme Court last month, but Sunak vowed to push forward revisions legislatively as the Prime Minister and his party face a favorability crisis ahead of a general election next year. 

New polling released Dec. 13 by online research data group YouGov showed Sunak had slipped to his lowest approval ratings ever, on par with previous Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s rating when he resigned. In polling conducted just ahead of Dec. 12’s vote on the Rwanda plan, seven in 10 Britons said they had an unfavorable view of Sunak, compared to 21% with a favorable view.

Here’s what you need to know about the Rwanda migrant plan and the pushback it continues to face.

What is the Rwanda migrant plan?

The deal—which was first introduced by former Prime Minister and ex-leader of the Conservative party Boris Johnson in April 2022—proposes the deportation of people seeking asylum in the U.K. to Rwanda, for processing and possible resettlement.

The scheme aims to mitigate migration rates and deter people from crossing the English Channel in small boats.

The Safety of Rwanda Bill is an effort to block legal challenges that have historically been enacted to prevent deportation flights from taking off. The bill compels judges to accept Rwanda as a safe country for asylum seekers. 

It also means that compelling evidence will be expected to escape deportation, and it will only be granted in cases where there is a “real and imminent risk of serious and irreversible harm,” Sunak told reporters, according to Al Jazeera.

Even though the scheme hasn’t yet removed any migrants to Rwanda because of legal challenges, the U.K. has already put forward £240 million ($300 million) for it, according to a letter to Members of Parliament from Sir Matthew Rycroft, a civil servant in the Home Office, on Dec. 7.  

The letter confirmed the U.K. paid the Rwandan government another £100 million ($126 million) this year on top of £140 million ($176 million) paid last year. A further £50 million ($63 million) is set to be given to the African nation in 2024. 

“I fully recognise the public interest in transparency and accountability of public authorities for expenditure and the broad public interest in furthering public understanding of the issues with which public authorities deal,” Rycroft wrote. He added that the government will only publish details of these payments annually.

“This was entirely separate to the Treaty—The Government of Rwanda did not ask for any payment in order for a Treaty to be signed, nor was any offered,” the letter clarified.

What is Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s plan regarding the failing Rwanda migrant deal?

Sunak no doubt breathed a sigh of relief after avoiding defeat on his bill on Dec. 12, posting on X that “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.” 

However, Sunak only has a couple more weeks to muster support within his own party to win again in January. According to reports, close to 40 Conservatives did not vote on Dec. 12. While many are believed to have abstained in opposition of the bill, some may have missed the vote for other reasons. 

Mark Francois, the Conservative MP for Rayleigh and Wickford, speaking on behalf of some right-wing lawmakers, said "we have decided collectively that we cannot support the bill tonight because of its many omissions," Reuters reported. Francois said Parliament would pick up the bill again in January, but warned of further rebellion if the legislation could not ensure deportation flights would not be blocked as they were last year after legal challenges. 

Sunak has already been rallying support for his bill since it was introduced on Dec. 6, holding a Downing Street press conference on Dec. 7 to urge his party’s backing. The Prime Minister outlined emergency legislation to put an end to the legal challenges that emerge whenever deportations to Rwanda are set to take place. The Tory leader said these measures will “finish the job.” 

The bill empowers ministers to sidestep sections of the Human Rights Act 1998, without entirely withdrawing from the ECHR (the European Convention on Human Rights).

However, ahead of Sunak’s conference, Minister of State for Immigration Robert Jenrick resigned from his post on Dec. 6 saying the proposed new legislation "does not go far enough" for him and other hardline Tory figures. 

Jenrick wrote in an editorial for the Telegraph on Dec. 8 that the bill would not work to end what he called “the merry-go-round of legal challenges that prevent small boat arrivals being swiftly removed in sufficient numbers to create a meaningful deterrent,” especially given that the Supreme Court’s ruling on Rwanda would make judges sympathetic to personal claims. 

Sunak expressed his disappointment over Jenrick’s resignation, but added: "If we were to oust the courts entirely, we would collapse the entire scheme.” He said: "The Rwandan government has been clear that they would not accept the U.K. basing this scheme on legislation that could be considered in breach of our international law obligations."

What has been the reaction to the U.K. government’s proposition?

The plan has so far seen no success after repeated setbacks and legal challenges from experts who say it is unlawful. Last month, the U.K. Supreme Court ruled that the scheme was not legal, as Rwanda is not a safe country for refugees.

Concerns have also been raised about the sheer cost of the policy, which has overseen zero deportation so far. In September, the U.K. observed the highest daily number of Channel crossings with 800 people making the journey in small boats, as the annual figure surpassed 21,000 at the time.

Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper has called the costs “unbelievable” on X (formerly Twitter), writing: "Tory Ministers repeatedly refused to come clean while they kept writing more cheques. Britain can’t afford more of this costly Tory chaos and farce."

Meanwhile Tom Pursglove, the Minister of State for Legal Migration and Delivery, has defended the payments to Sky News, insisting that they ensure the Rwanda policy is "robust." He added that the scheme aims to cut the amount the government spends on hotels and accommodation for migrants, which amounts to £8 million ($10 million) each day, according to Home Office figures.

The asylum bill has caused heightened tension in Westminster, most notably after the firing of former Home Secretary Suella Braverman in November. Braverman’s dismissal came after she wrote an unauthorized column for the Times of London criticizing the police. In her resignation letter, Braverman took the opportunity to call Sunak’s approach to the Rwanda bill a “betrayal” of their deal.

“I was clear from day one that if you did not wish to leave the ECHR, the way to securely and swiftly deliver our Rwanda partnership would be to block off the ECHR, the HRA (Human Rights Act) and any other obligations which inhibit our ability to remove those with no right to be in the U.K.,” she wrote. “Our deal expressly referenced ‘notwithstanding clauses’ to that effect.”

Braverman said that Sunak’s revised bill would “fail” in its current form.

But new Foreign Secretary and former Prime Minister David Cameron, who joined the cabinet after Braverman’s ouster, told reporters at a news conference in Washington D.C. on Dec. 7 that the revised bill includes ​​a “very convincing” pack of evidence about the “true nature of what happens in Rwanda” that he believed would overcome the arguments in the Supreme Court. He praised Sunak for creating a treaty with Rwanda that “only a couple of weeks ago everyone said would be impossible.”

“I support what the government is doing to deal with illegal migration,” Cameron said. “There is nothing more destructive to a country’s reputation for a fair migration system than wide scale, very public, very visible illegal migration.”

Meanwhile, Home Secretary James Cleverly told the BBC on Dec. 13, the morning after Sunak’s successful House of Commons vote, that the revised bill must be in the "Goldilocks zone" between being "tough enough", abiding by international law and being acceptable to Rwanda. 

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Write to Armani Syed at armani.syed@time.com