The Rwanda bill is a key test of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's authority
The latest polling figures put the Tories on just 20 per cent, with the Labour Party 27 points ahead on 47 per cent. AFP News

Rishi Sunak's promise to start flying asylum seekers to Rwanda by spring was dealt a blow yesterday after members of the House of Lords approved a timetable that would not see the bill passed before late March.

Sunak spent the morning urging his peers in the unelected chamber to pass his asylum bill as soon as possible, arguing it was the "will of the people" and they should see it as a "priority" for the country.

Right-wing Conservatives had threatened to kill the migration bill in the House of Commons, but they ultimately backed down and the government won comfortably by 320 votes to 276.

The next step for the bill to be passed requires the approval of the House of Lords.

However, his persuasive speech seems to have backfired, with members of the Lords describing it as "bizarre", "vacuous" and "weird" and consequently approving a two-month timetable to scrutinise the bill.

Angela Smith, Labour's leader in the Lords, described Sunak's press conference as "bizarre".

"I don't think he has a clue how the Lords works. We will stick to our normal processes for approving this bill," said Smith.

Alex Carlile, a crossbench peer and lawyer, added: "The prime minister's press conference was vacuous and banal, and he repeated the same statement around 20 times. It has caused some annoyance in the Lords."

Sunak had appeared to suggest the Lords could speed through his controversial proposal, but the House has opted to stick to normal procedure, including offering an opportunity to add further amendments to the bill.

It is likely some members of the Lords will try to stop ministers ignoring rulings from domestic or international courts, by softening the terms of the bill.

It is due to have a second reading on 29 January, followed by three days of debate in the committee stage on 12, 14 and 19 February.

The Lords are then likely to hold a final vote on the bill on 12 March, after which the Commons will have a chance to vote on any Lords amendments.

The subsequent process of shuttling the bill between the Lords and Commons in search of a joint agreement, known as "ping-pong", could take several weeks more.

The Rwanda bill, created to tackle illegal migration to the UK, was blocked by the Supreme Court in November.

It ruled that deporting asylum seekers to the East African country would violate international human rights laws enshrined in domestic legislation.

The plan is at the centre of the government's strategy to "stop the boats" – one of Rishi Sunak's five pledges he made at the beginning of his premiership.

Immediately after the Supreme Court decision, the government insisted it had been working on contingency measures and promised a revised treaty with Rwanda within days, along with emergency legislation in parliament.

So far, Downing Street has insisted the bill as drafted would be sufficient to finally get planes off the ground and it has given no indication that the rebel amendments could be accepted.

Yesterday, Sunak was criticised by the UK's statistics watchdog over his claim to have cleared the backlog of asylum cases.

The Home Office said earlier this month they had cleared a "legacy" backlog of 92,000 applications lodged before July 2022.

The prime minister then posted on social media to say "the backlog of asylum decisions" had been cleared.

But the watchdog said people may have felt "misled" by his language.

Official figures show a decision had not been reached in 4,537 of the "legacy" cases highlighted by the Home Office.

And they also showed that there are still 98,599 cases in the overall backlog where an initial decision has yet to be made.