(Bloomberg) -- Boris Johnson faces the prospect of another rebellion over key legislation, as politicians in his ruling party seek to expand the number of people leaving Hong Kong who are eligible for British citizenship.
More than two-dozen Conservative members of Parliament have put their name to an amendment to the government’s Nationality and Borders Bill, which is due to return to Parliament for debate next week.
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Their aim is to broaden the scope of the U.K.’s British National (Overseas) visa program, which was introduced in January to offer a pathway to U.K. citizenship to residents of its former colony after the Chinese government imposed a sweeping national security law.
The move comes at a sensitive time for Johnson on multiple fronts. The prime minister has already faced significant rebellions on his plan to overhaul social care and over his flagship transport policy, illustrating how difficult his Tory party is becoming to manage.
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He’s also trying to tread a fine line on China, amid growing Conservative unrest over national security issues and alleged human rights abuses in its western Xinjiang province. The U.K.’s offer of a route to citizenship for Hong Kongers severely damaged relations with Beijing.
The visa program is limited to Hong Kongers who hold the special British BNO passports, or those who are eligible for them, and their dependents -- a number the U.K. estimates to be about 5.4 million Hong Kong residents. In practice, the government projects between 258,000 to 322,400 people are likely to take up the new British visa in the first five years of the program.
But Tories including former cabinet minister Damian Green want to ensure any Hong Konger who has one BNO parent is also eligible.
“It’s particularly helpful to those who may suffer harsh reprisals for protesting against Chinese oppression,” Green, who was former Prime Minister Theresa May’s de facto deputy, told Bloomberg on Friday. “If the government don’t like it, they need to provide an alternative route to settlement for these people.”
Yet the proposal could greatly increase the number of people eligible to come to the U.K., while the government is also concerned about the potential for unaccompanied minors seeking to take up the visa option, an official familiar with the matter said, asking not to be named discussing party disagreements.
The Home Office said in a statement it has no plans to expand the eligibility criteria for the visa program, and that “there are other routes available” for people who are ineligible, including the U.K.’s points-based immigration system or the “underused Youth Mobility Scheme.”
The bill represents Home Secretary Priti Patel’s plan to overhaul the U.K.’s immigration system, including extra measures to deter illegal entry and make it easier for authorities to remove those without the right to remain.
To be sure, the 27 Tories who have put their names to Green’s amendment aren’t enough to threaten Johnson’s working majority of 79 in the House of Commons. But amid growing concerns about a rebellion, PoliticsHome on Friday reported that Patel privately messaged Tories who have put their name to the amendment to discuss why it’s unfeasible.
The amendment has attracted the signatures of several former cabinet ministers, including David Davis, Liam Fox, Andrew Mitchell and Jeremy Hunt. It also enjoys wide cross-party support, giving it a good chance of being selected for debate by House of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle when the bill comes before the chamber on Tuesday and Thursday next week.
Another amendment proposed by rank-and-file Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell would give right of abode in the U.K. to all former members of the British Hong Kong armed services, and their spouses and dependents. It has attracted 13 Tory signatures, as well as those of members of other parties.
The government is sympathetic to the aims of that amendment, the person familiar with the matter said, while adding that many of the people it targets already have a pathway to British citizenship.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.
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