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Starmer accuses Sunak of calling early election to avoid Rwanda test

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer during a visit to Gillingham Football club in Gillingham, Kent, while on the General Election campaign trail (Gareth Fuller/PA)
Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer during a visit to Gillingham Football club in Gillingham, Kent, while on the General Election campaign trail (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Sir Keir Starmer has accused Rishi Sunak of never believing the Rwanda deportation plan would work after the Prime Minister conceded flights would not take off before the election.

The Prime Minister and Labour leader kicked off their campaigns on Thursday with Mr Sunak urging voters to back him at the polls if they want the Government’s flagship immigration scheme to succeed.

During the morning broadcast round, Mr Sunak admitted planes carrying asylum seekers to Kigali would take off after polling day, but vowed the “preparation work” had already happened.

Mr Sunak took a huge political gamble by calling a July 4 election on Wednesday night in a rain-soaked press statement outside Number 10, despite having marked early in the month for when the first flight would take off.

Speaking on a visit to Gillingham in Kent, a traditional Conservative heartland, Sir Keir said: “I don’t think he’s ever believed that plan is going to work, and so he has called an election early enough to have it not tested before the election.

“We have to deal with the terrible loss of control of the border under this Government, we have to tackle the small boats that are coming across but nobody should be making that journey.”

Meanwhile Mr Sunak insisted that the Rwanda scheme would provide a deterrent, telling GB News: “Unless you’re able to deliver that, people will keep coming.”

On a visit to a distribution centre in Derbyshire, the PM sought to hammer his message that the Tories have a “clear plan” while Labour would go “back to square one”.

Mr Sunak highlighted his record as pandemic-era chancellor in arguing voters should back him at the polls if they want to see economic stability.

But speaking to LBC, the Prime Minister admitted that flights to Rwanda, which are central to the Government’s ambition to “stop the boats” crossing the Channel, will now take off “after the election”.

“If I’m elected, we will get the flights off,” he said.

Pressed further on timing, he said: “No, after the election. The preparation work has already gone on.”

Sir Keir has said Labour’s plan to curb small boat crossings would involve a new “border command” that would work with other countries to coordinate in tackling people-smuggling gangs.

Preparations for Rwanda deportation flights persist, Downing Street said, as Whitehall “continues to deliver existing Government policies”.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said the timetable “hasn’t changed” and that “we’ve always said those early weeks of July.”

The spokesman denied timings had been affected by a recent court ruling in Belfast that provisions of the UK’s Illegal Migration Act should be disapplied in Northern Ireland.

But the Home Office has already released some migrants who were detained for Rwanda flights on bail, the PA news agency understands.

The Prime Minister’s comments raise the possibility that courts may now look more favourably on immigration bail applications, in light of rules which state migrants can only be detained if there is a realistic prospect of their removal from the UK within a reasonable time scale. This means they could be released on bail if no action is being taken to deport them.

Meanwhile, net migration – the difference between the number of people legally arriving in the UK and leaving – was described as remaining “unusually high” at 685,000 in 2023. This is despite official estimates suggesting levels fell by 10% after hitting a record 764,000 in 2022 – 19,000 higher than previously thought.

The figures, still more than three times higher than the time of the last election when the Conservatives promised to cut overall numbers in their 2019 manifesto, have fuelled the immigration debate – a key campaign battleground.

Number 10 said they did not take into account the recent tightening of visa rules imposed by the Home Office, which the Government hopes will cut arrivals by 300,000 a year, while Labour said they represented “total Tory chaos and failure” on immigration.

General Election announcement
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called the General Election in a rain-soaked statement outside Downing Street (Lucy North/PA)

The Prime Minister denied that the real reason for calling a summer election is that inflation is expected to rise again and there is likely to be a spike in cross-Channel arrivals over the summer.

His Labour rival Sir Keir, meanwhile, launched Labour’s election campaign with a visit to south-east England, wanting to make inroads in Tory areas.

In London, Reform UK’s leader Richard Tice staged a press conference during which he claimed the PM was “absolutely terrified” of the threat of his party drawing voters on the right.

But the party’s most high-profile figure, honorary president Nigel Farage, said he would be focusing instead on getting Donald Trump re-elected rather than stand as an MP.

“I will do my bit to help in the (Reform) campaign, but it is not the right time for me to go any further than that,” he said. “Important though the general election is, the contest in the United States of America on November 5 has huge global significance.”

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey is expected to visit a target seat as he launches a campaign expected to focus on winning Tory-held seats following a series of eye-catching by-election successes.

Mr Sunak surprised many in Westminster, who had expected an autumn poll, when he fired the starting gun for the summer election.

(PA Graphics)

The news caused disquiet among Tory MPs fearful of losing their jobs, and those who have already said they will not stand are having to say goodbye to Parliament sooner than expected.

Despite speculation at Westminster about a Tory rebel effort to oust Mr Sunak and call off the election, one prominent critic of the Prime Minister said it was “too late” to get rid of him.

Just two more days of Commons business have been scheduled, during which important legislation will have to be rushed through.

Party whips from the Conservatives and Labour are holding talks to work out what outstanding legislation can become law before prorogation – the end of the current parliamentary session – on Friday.

That includes the Victims and Prisoners Bill, which includes measures to establish a compensation scheme for victims of the infected blood scandal.

The Prime Minister could not guarantee this would be authorised, or that Martyn’s Law and the Renters Reform Bill would be passed before Parliament is prorogued.

But he told LBC he would “do absolutely everything in my power to make sure that we do get that through”.

In his Downing Street statement, the Prime Minister said the election would be a question of trust, warning that Sir Keir was not the man to lead the country through “uncertain” times.

Mr Sunak hopes that Consumer Prices Index inflation falling to 2.3% in April and a recovering economy will help overturn a 20-point opinion poll deficit.

Sir Keir said the election would be a chance to turn the page on 14 years of Conservative rule and “stop the chaos” at Westminster.