Sunak Says U.K. Won’t Send Asylum Seekers to Rwanda Before Election

In calling a general election, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of Britain cast himself this week as a leader with a clear plan. That did not, it seemed, include carrying an umbrella during his remarks in front of 10 Downing Street, where Mr. Sunak was drenched in a spring shower that yielded a flood of snarky headlines.

“Drowning Street,” said the tabloid City A.M. “Drown & out,” cried The Daily Mirror. “Things can only get wetter,” declared The Daily Telegraph.

On Thursday, the first day of the six-week campaign, that dissonance spread from symbolism to substance. Mr. Sunak signaled that his government’s signature political project — putting asylum seekers on one-way flights to Rwanda — would not be set in motion before voters went to the polls on July 4.

Speaking to the BBC, Mr. Sunak cited the Rwanda policy to draw a sharp contrast with the opposition Labour Party, which he accused of having no plan to stop asylum seekers who make hazardous crossings of the English Channel in small boats.

“That’s the choice in this election,” the prime minister said.

But when he was asked if the first deportation flight would now take off after the election, he said yes, adding, “If I’m re-elected.”

To analysts and opposition leaders, Mr. Sunak’s admission foretold the end of a policy on which he may have spent more political capital than any other. Since the government first introduced the idea of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda in 2022, it has endured repeated legal challenges, fierce criticism from human rights groups and weeks of bitter debate in Parliament.

The Labour Party, which has a lead of more than 20 percentage points over Mr. Sunak’s Conservatives in polls, has vowed to stop the Rwanda plan if it gets into power. It has instead proposed closer cooperation with France and the use of counterterrorism powers to break up the criminal gangs that smuggle migrants across the channel.

“Stopping the boats was, if not the first of Sunak’s pledges, the most politically important,” said Steven Fielding, an emeritus professor of political history at the University of Nottingham. “The Conservatives’ failure on this is demonstrable, and Labour isn’t shy about pointing it out.”

Yvette Cooper, a senior Labour official, said Mr. Sunak’s words showed that the policy was a “con from start to finish,” though she and others allowed that the government might pull off a surprise flight before July 4. The prime minister had promised to get flights in the air by July, after the Rwanda law passed Parliament in April.

The fierce maneuvering over Rwanda illustrates the extent to which immigration in Britain, as in the United States, has become a fraught issue in an election year. For Mr. Sunak, the English Channel carries some of the same symbolism, and peril, as the southern American border does for President Biden.

That is partly because immigration to Britain has surged since the country voted to leave the European Union in 2016. Most of the arrivals are legal migrants: doctors and nurses from South Asia or graduate students from Africa. But a small, if persistent, share are asylum seekers. Tabloid papers carry photos of rafts landing on the beaches in Kent. Populist figures like Nigel Farage warn of an invasion on England’s southern coast.

On Thursday, Britain’s Office for National Statistics reported that net legal migration — the number of people who arrived, minus those who left — reached 685,000 people in 2023. That is more than a 10 percent decline from 2022, when it was a record 764,000. But it is still three times as high as in 2019, when the Conservatives won the last general election on a platform that pledged to reduce immigration numbers.

“Seven hundred thousand is a large figure for a relatively small country,” said Anand Menon, a professor of European politics at King’s College London. “Rightly or wrongly, some people see it as a problem.”

Many of those who support lower levels of immigration are former Labour Party voters in the Midlands and the North of England who switched their support to the Conservatives in 2019 because of the party’s promise to “get Brexit done.” Labour has set out to recapture these voters, and success would go a long way toward securing a durable parliamentary majority.

That is why Mr. Sunak has devoted so much energy to promoting the Rwanda plan. He made stopping the boats one of his five bedrock goals, though he has yet to fulfill it. On Tuesday, Mr. Sunak traveled to Austria to meet with its chancellor, Karl Nehammer, in part so he could share a stage with Mr. Nehammer as he heaped praise on the Rwanda policy and extolled the virtues of sending asylum seekers to other countries.

But polls show that the Conservative Party’s credibility on immigration has eroded amid the rising number of arrivals. Two years after the Rwanda policy was first proposed under then Prime Minister Boris Johnson, it has distinguished itself mainly by the court challenges it has drawn and its costs, which are projected to balloon to 370 million pounds, or about $469 million, by the end of 2024.

“Even voters who like the Rwanda policy think it has been an expensive failure,” said Robert Ford, a professor of politics at the University of Manchester.

While the Labour Party has also struggled with immigration in past elections, Professor Ford said it was less of a problem this time around because the issue is not as important with the bulk of its supporters. The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, has struck a cautious tone on the issue, in part to avoid turning off voters in the Midlands and the North. But he has not hesitated to reject the government’s Rwanda plan.

Mr. Sunak’s relentless emphasis on Rwanda, by contrast, speaks to the narrowness of the electoral strategy being pursued by the Conservative Party, Professor Menon said. Some analysts even suggest that he called the election four months earlier than expected to avoid the flotilla of small boats that typically cross the Channel during the summer.

“He’s talking not only about an issue that people aren’t obsessed about, but an issue on which the consensus is he’s failed,” Professor Menon said.

For Mr. Sunak, the Rwanda policy has become such an article of faith that it has occasionally thrust him into awkward situations. In February, Piers Morgan, the broadcaster, challenged Mr. Sunak to a bet of 1,000 pounds, or about $1,271, that his government would not get anyone on a plane to Rwanda before an election was held.

“Look, I want to get the people on the planes,” Mr. Sunak replied, before shaking Mr. Morgan’s outstretched hand. The prime minister later said he’d been taken by surprise, adding, “I’m not a betting person.”

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