Cameron Retreats as U.K. Tories Prepare to Rebel on Immigration

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron bowed to a party mutiny over immigration, underscoring Conservative divisions and his inability to get his way in Parliament.

In the last year Cameron has been forced to concede a referendum on membership of the European Union, seen his party vote in record numbers against his own legislative program and had his plan to take military action in Syria rejected.

Attempts by Cameron to avoid a parliamentary vote today on an amendment proposed by rebel Conservative lawmakers failed after Speaker John Bercow selected it for debate. Facing the prospect of a challenge to Cameron’s authority, the government said it would not oppose the new clause.

“It is an indication the prime minister has lost control of the situation; to concede is a fig leaf covering up an embarrassing defeat,” Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London, said in a telephone interview. “On this particular mix of immigration and Europe, Cameron has clearly not got a grip on his party.”

Lawmakers will vote on an amendment from Tory lawmaker Dominic Raab that would mean foreign criminals being deported unless they risk being killed or tortured on return to their home nation. Raab’s measure commands the support of more than 100 lawmakers, most of them Conservatives.

“Conservative members on the government payroll will be abstaining on the Raab amendment,” Cameron’s spokesman Jean-Christophe Gray said in an interview. Lawmakers will vote shortly before 4:00 p.m. today.

Failed Tactics

Faced with the prospect of Tories voting against their own government today, ministers had sought to block them by restricting the time for debate and laying down their own new clauses. With those tactics not working, Cameron has now been forced to back down.

Home Secretary Theresa May proposed more than 50 amendments to her own legislation, including one aimed at terrorists that will allow the government to revoke someone’s citizenship if they gained it through naturalization, and their behavior has been “seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the U.K.”

The opposition Labour Party claimed the clause was an attempt to buy off rebels.

Under Raab’s proposed measure, the U.K. home secretary, not the courts, would rule on whether an offender’s family links are strong enough to allow them to avoid deportation.

Killers and Rapists

“This focused amendment would cut the hundreds of convicted killers, rapists, drug-dealers and other serious criminals successfully challenging deportation orders on the basis of family and social ties,” Raab said in an interview yesterday. “It isn’t embroiling us in totemic debates about Europe or the Human Rights Act -- it’s just a robust, targeted, way to restore some balance to our border controls.”

The Immigration Bill aims to limit the grounds on which immigrants can appeal to stay in the U.K., alongside restricting their access to taxpayer-funded services and would penalize landlords who rent premises to illegal migrants.

Earlier, former Tory leader Michael Howard urged his party to avoid a damaging split on the issue, saying that winning the general election outright next year should be the Conservatives’ overriding goal.

“What is needed in this stage of the parliament is a degree of self-discipline by Conservative backbenchers,” he told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” show.

Cameron tried to get his party behind him on Jan. 14, urging them to stop writing public letters of protest about policy and instead come and see him. It didn’t prevent the rebel amendments to today’s bill.

Bulgaria and Romania

Another group of Conservative lawmakers has proposed an amendment calling on the government to reinstate restrictions on migrants from Bulgaria and Romania working in Britain until the end of 2018. That measure may also go to a vote this afternoon.

The moves reflect fear among Tory lawmakers that the party will lose ground to the U.K. Independence Party in European elections in May. A YouGov Plc poll commissioned by the Sun newspaper Jan. 16 projected Labour would receive 32 percent of the vote, UKIP 26 percent and the Conservatives 23 percent. UKIP campaigns for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.

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