Rishi Sunak could get surprise Rwanda flight off before election

The flight taking asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda has been grounded at the last minute in 2022
The flight taking asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda has been grounded at the last minute in 2022 - DAN KITWOOD/GETTY IMAGES EUROPE

Rishi Sunak could get a surprise Rwanda deportation flight off the ground before the election on July 4.

The Home Office is still working to a timetable that could see the first flight take off as early as June 24, in line with the Prime Minister’s pledge to go ahead with the first removals within 12 weeks of royal assent for his Safety of Rwanda Act.

The move would be seen by Tory strategists as a coup for Mr Sunak in the final weeks of the election campaign in highlighting a dividing line between him and Sir Keir Starmer, who has pledged to scrap the scheme from day one if Labour comes to power.

Labour also suspects that Mr Sunak could get a surprise flight off before the election as they believe there is nothing to stop civil servants from preparing for and instituting such a move in the final days of the campaign.

One Labour source suggested it would likely be a flight of a small number of failed asylum seekers who were included in an expanded Rwanda deportation scheme just a week before Mr Sunak called the snap election.

Speculation about such a gambit has emerged despite the Prime Minister appearing to rule out the possibility of flights before the general election when questioned on a broadcast round on Thursday morning.

Speaking on LBC, he repeated his pledge to have a regular “drumbeat” of flights through July and the Summer if re-elected.” Pressed further on the timing, he said: “No, after the election.”

The Rwanda scheme has been met with protests by human rights groups
The Rwanda scheme has been met with protests by human rights groups - NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP

There are concerns that there could be significant obstacles in trying to get a flight off during an election campaign such as whether a court would sanction deportations if challenged by asylum seekers and if civil servants could ignore a Rule 39 injunction against flights issued by Strasbourg human rights judges.

The Telegraph understands that the process and timeline of 10 to 12 weeks that Mr Sunak announced from Royal Assent remains unchanged and “technically” the Home Office could get flights off just before election day on July 4.

The Home Office initially gave a window from July 1 to July 15 for the first flights in its submission to the High Court responding to a legal challenge by the top civil servants’ union, the First Division Association (FDA). However, it subsequently amended that to June 24 as the start of the two-week window.

Labour is convinced that the Prime Minister will try to get a flight off before election day and believes election “purdah” will not prevent civil servants from doing so as the Rwanda scheme is not a new policy.

Purdah bars civil servants from any act which clearly or directly conflicts with the stated intentional commitments (manifesto) of the Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet during the election campaign period.

Labour pledge

Labour – which has pledged to halt the flights from day one – believes Mr Sunak will attempt a “proof of concept” flight with potentially 20 failed asylum seekers on board.

Sir Keir has said that a Labour Government would use the £75 million a year saved from scrapping the Rwanda scheme to set up a border force command with new powers to treat people smugglers like terrorists.

Sir Keir has claimed the approach will be a more effective deterrent than the Rwanda scheme which is likely to remove small numbers – potentially just one per cent of asylum seekers in the UK – at extortionate cost.

Labour has also pledged to ramp up caseworker numbers to reduce the asylum backlog and a new returns unit with 1,000 staff to fast-track removals.