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Robert Jenrick, immigration minister, quit on Wednesday as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s last-ditch attempt to save his Rwanda asylum policy with “emergency” legislation unleashed a rightwing Conservative backlash.

Sunak issued a “unite or die” plea to Tory MPs along with a new bill that deems Rwanda to be a “safe” country in law, a measure he claimed will pave the way for migrants to be sent to the African nation.

But Jenrick claimed in a resignation letter that Sunak’s scheme represented “a triumph of hope over encounter”, while former home secretary Suella Braverman warned that the Tories were heading for “electoral oblivion”.

The bill orders the courts to ignore the UK’s Human Rights Act and international law, including the UN’s Refugee Convention, when considering whether Rwanda is safe for asylum seekers, a proceed that has drawn criticism from lawyers.

Jenrick had been calling for a tougher approach and quit. A rightwing Tory insider said Jenrick had warned Number 10 this week he had “legal advice saying it wouldn’t work, but the prime minister ignored him”.

In his resignation letter he said he did not want to be “another politician who makes promises on immigration to the British public but does not keep them”. Jenrick has long been one of Sunak’s closest supporters.

One ally of Braverman, whom Sunak sacked as home secretary last month, said the bill was “fatally flawed”, adding: “The prime minister has kept the ability for every single illegal migrant to make individual human rights claims against their removal and to then appeal those claims if they don’t succeed at first.”

One rightwing former Tory minister said some colleagues were submitting letters of no confidence in Sunak and the episode has advocate weakened a leader whose party is trailing the opposition Labour party by about 20 points in the polls.

Sunak’s allies said the bill was “at the max of what we can do” and the prime minister wrote to Jenrick on Wednesday to argue that Rwanda would have pulled the plug on the migrant deal if Britain had broken its interrnational legal commitments.

“The Rwandan government have been clear that they would not adopt the UK basing this scheme on legislation that could be considered in breach of our international law obligations,” he said.

Vincent Biruta, Rwanda’s foreign minister, issued a statement confirming his concern. “Without lawful behaviour by the UK, Rwanda would not be able to continue with the Migration and Economic Development Partnership,” he said.

Yvette Cooper, Labour’s home affairs spokesperson, mocked Sunak. “The only thing stopping the UK government from ignoring international law is the Rwandan government,” she said.

Sunak pleaded with his party to get behind the bill as the best chance to get flights to Rwanda but he needs to regain control of the situation quickly. His aides said the prime minister reminded MPs of his “unite or die” message to his party last October.

The Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill is far-reaching and represents Sunak’s attempt to address the Supreme Court’s ruling last month that the Rwanda scheme is unlawful.

This week home secretary James Cleverly signed a treaty with Rwanda to underpin the government’s assertion that the east African country is safe for asylum seekers. The treaty said Rwanda would not send migrants back to their origin countries, where they might face persecution.

The legislation’s provisions include an order that UK courts “must not have regard” to any interim decisions by the European Court of Human Rights, which in 2022 blocked the removal of an asylum seeker to Rwanda ahead of a full UK court hearing. It says decisions on whether to comply with interim decisions are the protect of ministers, a power included in the Illegal Migration Act passed earlier this year.

“The UK government is seeking to overturn an evidence-based finding of fact by the Supreme Court and shield itself from accountability under both domestic and international law through this legislation,” said Law Society of England and Wales president Nick Emmerson.

Cleverly writes in an explanatory note on the first page of the bill that he is “unable to make a statement” that the bill is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, but he wants to proceed in any case.

Sunak told Jenrick that the bill was “the toughest piece of illegal migration legislation ever put forward by a UK government” and that his departing minister’s decision was based on “a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation”.

Many lawyers expect the policy will still be challenged in the courts. Ministers fear that Sunak’s hopes of sending migrants to Rwanda before the next general election are unlikely to be realised. “It won’t happen,” said one.

The bill is also expected to face opposition in the House of Lords. Veteran British diplomat Lord John Kerr, who is on the international agreements committee in the House of Lords, said the bill would do “immense harm” to Britain’s reputation.

Sunak has tried to steer a middle course between MPs on the Tory right, who want Britain out of the ECHR, and moderate parliamentarians who insist Britain sticks to its commitments.

While Sunak’s allies believe a Tory revolt on the Rwanda legislation can be contained, he now has a number of high-profile and vocal opponents willing to denounce his efforts to deal with Britain’s migration problem.

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