Rishi Sunak shelves flagship Rwanda and smoking policies before election

<span>Rishi Sunak on a visit to the Port of Nigg in north-east Scotland on Thursday.</span><span>Photograph: Henry Nicholls/AP</span>
Rishi Sunak on a visit to the Port of Nigg in north-east Scotland on Thursday.Photograph: Henry Nicholls/AP

Rishi Sunak has dropped flagship policies on deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda and banning smoking for young people on the first full day of his election campaign, leaving his legacy increasingly threadbare.

Ministers confirmed that key pieces of legislation that could be rushed through by MPs before parliament is suspended were likely to be dropped, including plans to end no-fault evictions and to introduce a football regulator.

Keir Starmer, kicking off his campaign in the target seat of Gillingham in Kent, said it was time to “turn the page on Tory chaos”, and Labour said the government’s legislative programme was in tatters with many proposed laws now “up in the air or in the bin”.

The prime minister’s admission that people who crossed the Channel in small boats will not be flown to Rwanda before 4 July was met with despair from Tory rightwingers, with many of his MPs already unhappy about his early election date.

Under the £500m scheme, which is the cornerstone of his government’s promise to “stop the boats”, flights would not start taking off for Kigali until after the election, the prime minister said.

As Sunak set off on a whistle stop tour of the UK, heading for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland over 24 hours, he insisted the Rwanda plan would go ahead if he was elected as the flights were “booked for July, the airfields are on standby”.

Starmer said his decision to call an early election showed he “clearly does not believe in his own Rwanda plan”. At Labour’s campaign launch, he 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.”

Those opposing the scheme, including trade unions and refugee charities, celebrated the likelihood that the Rwanda plan would now probably not happen, with Labour the clear favourites to win the election.

Sunak had previously agreed to a £1,000 bet with the broadcaster Piers Morgan that flights to Rwanda would take off before polling day, and the journalist is now demanding he pays up to a refugee charity.

Another key plank of Sunak’s premiership, a promise to ban young people from ever being able to buy tobacco legally, was also left in doubt after it was not mentioned among the final business in the House of Commons before the election.

Sunak had promised in his campaign launch that the “next generation will grow up smoke-free”. However, the leader of the Commons, Penny Mordaunt, did not include the tobacco and vapes bill as she set out the legislation that could be rushed through by MPs before parliament is prorogued on Friday during a period known as “wash-up”. Sources said it was not possible to get through legislation that was subject to a free vote during that time.

The government also appeared unlikely to pass Martyn’s law, the legislation to tighten venue security named in honour of one of the victims of the Manchester Arena bombing.

The mother of Martyn Hett, one of the 22 victims of the attack, said she felt misled by Sunak after he had promised to rush through the bill in her son’s name before summer, hours before he called the general election.

Figen Murray met the prime minister at about 1pm on Wednesday, four hours before he announced the election, after walking 200 miles to Downing Street to mark the seventh anniversary of the terror atrocity.

“He promised me and we shook hands on it and he said he will definitely present the legislation in parliament before summer recess,” she said. “Obviously at that time he knew that he was going to call an election that day but we didn’t know that.

“Although what he said was good, what isn’t so good is that he can’t commit to it being totally done and dusted by the next election – and then later that day he called the election.”

Labour has indicated it would introduce the bill “as soon as possible”.

It was Sunak’s acknowledgment that Rwanda flights would not leave before July that caused the most consternation in his own already divided party. Pressed on whether any deportation flights would take off before voters go to the polls, Sunak repeatedly said the scheme would get up and running only after the election. “If I am re-elected as prime minister on 5 July, these flights will go … we will get our Rwanda scheme up and running,” he told the BBC.

Starmer said Sunak’s move to an election before the scheme had started meant the prime minister knew that the plan, devised two years ago under Boris Johnson, would not work. “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,” he said.

Tories on the right of the party are frustrated and have said Sunak should have ensured that a plane would land in east Africa before any election date.

One former minister said: “If the PM truly believed in the plan, which ministers have spent so much time getting right, he would have seen it through, whatever it took. Instead it will be difficult if not impossible to defend because it has not been shown to work.”

Another Conservative said Sunak did not want to take on the European court of human rights, which stopped the last deportation flight to Rwanda in 2022 by issuing a rule 39 injunction. “The suspicion is that Sunak is worried that Strasbourg would attempt to stop the flights again and is unwilling to ignore their rulings,” they said.

Refugee charities that have been fighting the plan said it was a “dead duck”. Enver Solomon, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: “The Rwanda plan will go down in the history of British policymaking as an Alice in Wonderland adventure that was both absurd and inhumane.”

Government lawyers had previously told the high court that the earliest date for flights was the week commencing 24 June. A government source confirmed that the aim was now for flights to take off in July, adding that the timetable and process for flights remained unchanged and that the “late June” date had only ever been the earliest possible date.

While the smoking ban and Rwanda plan appear set to fall by the wayside, the government did promise on Thursday that a bill would go ahead enabling compensation to be paid to the victims of the contaminated blood scandal. A bill to exonerate post office operators caught up in the Horizon IT scandal passed on Thursday evening.

At an event in Scotland on Thursday evening, at Nigg Energy Park north of Inverness, Sunak urged Starmer to agree to TV debates. “He’s had however many years to think about what he wants to do for the country and, as I said the other day, he doesn’t seem to be able to tell people what he wants to do, doesn’t have a plan, doesn’t have the courage of his convictions,” Sunak said.

“But that’s why we need to have these debates, so we can actually debate these issues and people can make a decision on who they think it’s going to provide a secure future for our country.”