By Andrew MacAskill, Kate Holton and Alistair Smout
LONDON (Reuters) -British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak appealed to his Conservative lawmakers on Thursday to unite behind his plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda after a revolt that once again exposed deep divisions in his party.
Sunak is facing the biggest challenge to his year-long tenure as he tries to stop lawmakers on the party’s right wing from rebelling over their demand that Britain should quit international treaties to set its own migration policy.
His immigration minister quit on Wednesday and he is facing questions as to whether he can get his key policy through a vote in parliament. Some Conservative lawmakers said on Thursday that Sunak could face a leadership challenge with the party far behind in polls ahead of an election expected next year.
At a press conference in Downing Street, Sunak said the legislation satisfied almost all the criticisms from his colleagues, but if the government went any further in disregarding human rights law, Rwanda would abandon the deal.
“It is the only approach because going any further, that difference is an inch, but going any further means that Rwanda will collapse the scheme and then we will have nowhere to send anyone to,” he said.
Although Sunak said the bill should end legal wrangling over the policy, experts have said it is likely to face further court challenges, casting doubt on his aim to get flights going by the spring, two years after the policy was first announced.
The draft legislation comes three weeks after Britain’s Supreme Court ruled that Rwanda was not a safe place to send migrants arriving in small boats on England’s south coast, and that the plan would breach British and international law.
The Rwanda scheme is at the centre of the government’s strategy to deter illegal migration. The court’s decision dealt a heavy setback for Sunak who is struggling to revive a weak economy and is heavily trailing the main opposition Labour party in opinion polls.
Sunak will now try to get the legislation through parliament, but said he would not make it a confidence vote in his government in an attempt to shore up party support. Losing a confidence vote can trigger a national election.
The bill was introduced to the House of Commons on Thursday, with the first vote on the legislation due on Dec. 12.
Some Conservative members of parliament said for the first time since Sunak entered office a year ago there was a possibility he could face a leadership challenge.
One Conservative politician, who reluctantly supports the Rwanda plan, said the last year had shown that his colleagues can be ruthless in removing a struggling prime minister.
“I have a feeling of deja vu,” he said.
The chairman of the Conservative Party, Richard Holden, said a leadership campaign right now would be “insanity” and the party’s biggest challenge before the election would be staying united. “The enemy is not within,” he told reporters.
Sunak suffered his first parliamentary defeat earlier this week as members of parliament voted to establish a compensatory body for victims of the infected blood scandal.
So far only one Conservative lawmaker, Andrea Jenkyns, has publicly called for a no-confidence vote, but she said six of her colleagues have done so privately.
Jenkyns said on Wednesday the resignation of the immigration minister “may be the death knell for Sunak’s leadership”.
To trigger a leadership challenge, 53 of the 350 Conservative lawmakers in parliament must write letters of no confidence to the chairman of its 1922 Committee.
Sunak insisted the legislation, if passed, would make it “vanishingly rare” for any asylum seeker to be able to block their removal.
The prime minister said it would stop every single reason that has ever been used to prevent flights taking off to Rwanda. The first flight was scheduled to go last summer but was cancelled at the last moment because of legal challenges.
“I want to finish the job and finishing the job means getting this legislation on the statute books,” Sunak said. “I’m determined to see this through.”
(Reporting by Andrew MacAskill, Kate Holton, Alistair Smout, Muvija M, Kylie MacLellan, Sarah Young, Elizabeth Piper; editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Mark Heinrich)