Deep division in Conservative party as immigration policy splits Sunak's cabinet

Rishi Sunak has found himself once again embroiled in a row over migration Credit: PA

The prime minister may have hoped shrinking inflation figures and tax cuts would have been enough to woo the public and reassure restless Tory MPs.  

But, Rishi Sunak has found himself embroiled in a row over migration once again, following data from the ONS showing net migration hit 745,000 in 2022.  

Mr Sunak and his cabinet have been keen to stress that illegal migration will be reduced and levels of net migration are too high. 

But the difficulty is that no-one within the party or government can agree on how to get legal numbers down or what level net migration should be.

All while the government’s flagship Rwanda scheme remains entangled in legal challenges following the Supreme Court ruling.

Home Secretary James Cleverly angered Tory MPs after arguing the Rwanda plan was not the “be all and end all” of the government’s migration policy, in an interview with The Times newspaper.

Today, he and immigration minister Robert Jenrick sought to reassure MPs in the House.

“The Rwanda scheme is an incredibly important part of the basket of responses that we have," Mr Cleverly said. 

Mr Jenrick added: "We remain focused on delivering our comprehensive plan to stop the boats by breaking the business model of the people smugglers and will shortly be piloting emergency legislation through this House to ensure flights to Rwanda take off as a matter of urgency.”

But this afternoon Downing Street refused to guarantee the government’s planned treaty with Rwanda - aimed at addressing some of the Supreme Court’s concerns - would be signed before MPs depart for Christmas recess.

Immigration minister Robert Jenrick and Home Secretary James Cleverly sought to reassure MPs in the House over the collapsed Rwanda policy. Credit: Jordan Pettitt/PA

“It’s due to be published in the coming weeks,” the prime minister’s spokesperson told reporters.  

“I think people understand that following the judgment, which was relatively recently, it’s right to ensure we have the strongest possible position because we want both the treaty and the Bill to have the best possible chance of success and that’s why we are focused on finalising these details.” 

Many MPs within the right of the party are growing increasingly disillusioned, and impatient, accusing the government of a lack of progress on this issue.

“Migration is totemic – it’s the issue I get the most correspondence about,” argued one Tory, "people have been incensed by images of small boats crossing the channel”. 

Backbencher Simon Clarke is among those who increasingly question the UK's relationship with the European Convention on Human Rights.

He told MPs in the Commons the “disapplication of elements of the (ECHR) and the Refugee Convention" will be "necessary” to operationalise the Rwanda scheme.

But those on the left of the party have told me that ignoring or leaving the ECHR entirely would send a poor message to international allies and could jeopardise the Good Friday Agreement.

Home Secretary James Cleverly angered Tory MPs after arguing that the Rwanda plan was not the “be all and end all” of migration policy.   Credit: PA

"It's like we've all completely forgotten about Northern Ireland," one MP remarked.

Meanwhile, on the issue of legal migration the government is weighing up anger from its backbenches alongside the economic implications of curbing overseas workers and students. 

Mr Jenrick told MPs this afternoon that "all options" were under review to reduce net migration numbers. 

One Conservative told me that many within the party agreed with the proposals reportedly put forward by former Home Secretary Suella Braverman. 

The Telegraph newspaper reported that Ms Braverman outlined a series of suggestions to Rishi Sunak including increasing the minimum salary threshold for overseas workers. 

Speaking earlier this morning, Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch signalled her support for changing salary thresholds, telling LBC: "Well, let’s wait and see what the home secretary’s package is. I certainly think that this is something that needs to be done."

Yet other backbenchers have privately praised Ms Braverman’s successor, arguing that James Cleverly’s tone and approach signals a government willing to be more practical and less dogmatic on the issue of migration.

Former home secretary Suella Braverman visited Rwanda in March. Credit: PA

“He is a public servant not a self-promotor... brings humanity back to the home office,” one Conservative told me.  

Some Tories, whose constituencies have faced healthcare worker shortages have warned that tough curbs could make the government's job of tackling the NHS backlog and improving wait times even harder. 

“Yes those net migration figures look high, and yes people have a right to be concerned about illegal migration,” an MP added. “But we have invited and encouraged health care workers – and now we are slamming the door in their faces?" 

Arguably the biggest difficulty for Rishi Sunak is that he finds himself having to defend 13 years of Conservative immigration policy, as successive prime ministers have struggled to reduce legal and illegal migration numbers. 

Many Conservative MPs fear that despite the government's tough rhetoric on migration, without substantive progress to point to the party will struggle to persuade voters that it has got numbers under control.

One MP simply told me: “We cannot fight the next election on migration because if we do, we will lose" 

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