Rishi Sunak Drops Promise of Rwanda Deportation Flights in the Spring

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(Bloomberg) -- Rishi Sunak conceded his longstanding promise to send deportation flights to Rwanda by the spring has fallen by the wayside, as the UK prime minister sought to finally pass legislation to enable his flagship migration policy.

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The government now aims for the first flight to take off in July, the premier told a press conference in London on Monday. His tone suggested he’s lost patience with Parliament’s upper chamber, the House of Lords, which has sought to amend the government’s bill to label Rwanda a “safe” country to send deportees.

“Enough is enough: No more prevarication; No more delay; No ifs, no buts. These flights are going to Rwanda,” Sunak told a news conference at his office in Downing Street in London. “The first flight will leave in 10 to 12 weeks. Of course, that is later than we wanted.”

The government is relying on the policy to deter migrants from making the perilous journey in small boats to the UK’s southern shores across the English Channel from France. The delay in getting it going suggests he has ruled out a general election early in the summer. Some of his advisers had floated the idea of a June polling day in order to minimize Conservative losses.

Sunak — who has the power to decide on the election date himself — has previously said his “working assumption” is one will be held in the second half of the year. “That remains the case,” he said on Monday. The latest he can hold a national vote is January.

Sunak has promised Parliament on Monday will sit and vote on the bill “until it’s done,” meaning lawmakers could sit into the early hours on Tuesday morning if the Lords dig in on their amendments, which set out additional procedures before Rwanda can be deemed “safe” and an exemption from deportation for those that have supported the British military abroad, such as in Afghanistan.

The bill seeks to circumvent a Supreme Court ruling last year that deportations were unlawful on human right grounds, and has been stuck in a Parliamentary process known as ping pong for weeks as the House of Lords and the Commons disagree on its content.

Whether the Rwanda policy succeeds is a key test of Sunak’s premiership after he made the pledge to “stop the boats” one of five promises that voters should judge him by. The government has argued that a 36% drop in arrivals by boat last year is down to the deterrence provided by the prospect of the policy coming in — but numbers so far this year are back to record levels.

Sunak said that even before the legislation has been passed, his government has been paving the way for deportation flights to take off. Extra court rooms and judicial time have been reserved in case of last-ditch legal challenges to the policy, while commercial planes have been chartered and 500 escorts have been trained, he said on Monday.

“The priority is being able to deliver a regular rhythm — a drumbeat of multiple flights,” Sunak told reporters. Rwandan President Paul Kagame is “completely committed” to the plan, Sunak added, amid reports homes marked for migrants in Rwanda had been sold off to local buyers.

The focus on migration and defense comes ahead of local elections on May 2, in which the Conservatives are expected to suffer heavy losses. Keir Starmer’s opposition Labour Party currently leads opinion polls by around 20 points and is on course to win power at a general election that must be held by the end of January. Sunak blamed Labour opposition to the scheme for the delays, but added, “we will start the flights and we will stop the boats.”

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