Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer trade blows on migration as general election campaign begins

Migration has taken centre stage on the first day of the general election campaign, with the prime minister and Labour leader trading blows on the government's flagship Rwanda policy.

Sir Keir Starmer accused Rishi Sunak of never believing in his deportation plan as he kicked off his campaign in Gillingham in Kent, a traditional Conservative heartland, while the prime minister admitted that flights will not get off the ground before the election.

And it also emerged that other flagship Tory policies remain in the balance, with key bits of legislation looking likely to be dropped.

As day one of the campaign kicked off, Sir Keir told voters of the flagship Rwanda plan: "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."

The prime minister conceded his plan, aimed at stopping illegal migration, would not take off before the country goes to the polls, hours after announcing the election on 4 July.

Mr Sunak, who made the plan central to the government's pledge to "stop the boats" crossing the Channel, said the "preparation work has already gone on", and that flights would take off if the Conservatives are elected.

He also insisted that without a deterrent like the Rwanda scheme, "people will keep coming".

Labour, who are leading by 20 points in the polls, have pledged to scrap the scheme, meaning flights may never get off the ground.

Mr Sunak, who is on a whirlwind two-day tour of the four nations of the UK, repeated his message that the Tories have a "clear plan" while Labour would go "back to square one".

But other plans now unlikely to become a reality before voters go to the polls include his plan to create a smoke-free generation by banning young people from ever being able to smoke tobacco legally.

The Football Governance Bill, which would establish an independent regulator, and the Renters Reform Bill are also unlikely to make it into law.

'Unusually high' net migration figures

Immigration, a key campaign battleground, was thrust into the spotlight again on Thursday with the emergence of new figures showing net migration has only dropped by 10% from a record high in 2022.

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.

After kicking off his campaign in London, Reform leader Richard Tice told Politics Hub with Sophy Ridge the figures were a "compete betrayal" of the Tories' pledge to cut overall numbers in the last election.

Farage confirms he won't stand in election

He also commented on news today that the party's most high-profile figure, honorary president Nigel Farage, will not be standing as a candidate - but he will be campaigning for Reform.

In a statement, Mr Farage said while the general election is "important", November's US election "has huge global significance" and he wants to help with "the grassroots campaign" there.

Asked about Mr Farage's announcement, Mr Tice told Sky News he is "completely right" in saying the US is an important ally and his work is in "Britain's interest".

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A six-week race for the keys to Number 10

Meanwhile, it was the government's record on the economy, NHS and sewage pollution that Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey chose to focus on as he spoke at a rally in Cheltenham.

He told activists the Conservatives "have to go", arguing that a vote for the Lib Dems "in many parts of the country" was the best way to "get rid" of Tory MPs.

Scotland's first minister and SNP leader John Swinney also hit out at what he called the "disastrous" Conservative government as he launched the SNP's campaign.

But his launch saw Sky correspondent Sadiya Chowdhury press Mr Swinney about MSP Michael Matheson who is facing a 27-sitting day suspension from Holyrood over his £11,000 iPad data roaming bill.

Asked by Chowdhury what this says to the public as he launched his campaign, Mr Swinney said: "Parliament, I think, is in danger of falling into disrepute by the way this issue is being handled because one of the members of the committee that's looked at Michael Matheson's conduct has expressed opinions that, I think, prejudice the case."