Inside Sunak’s Hail-Mary Plan to Narrow Poll Gap With Labour

(Bloomberg) -- Rishi Sunak said he would begin deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda in the days after the general election on July 4 if he’s still prime minister, setting out his core message for the six-week campaign to try to keep Keir Starmer’s poll-leading Labour Party from taking power.

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“If I’m elected, we will get the flights off,” Sunak told LBC Radio early Thursday, hours after surprising his Conservative Party by calling a snap vote almost everyone expected in the autumn. Pressed further on timing, he said: “No, after the election. The preparation work has already gone on.”

With polls putting Labour 20 points ahead or more, the campaign battle lines are rapidly taking shape. For Starmer’s party, it’s about underscoring the turmoil of the Conservative Party’s 14-year record in office, via Brexit, the pandemic, Liz Truss and an historic cost-of-living crisis. The Labour leader is tapping into voters’ demand for change, while emphasizing a return to stability and what he calls a “politics that treads lighter on people’s lives.”

Faced with skepticism about achieving anything more than damage limitation, Sunak is taking a starkly different approach. He wants voters to look past the turmoil and focus on improving economic data to imagine better times ahead. But he’s also talking up various domestic and geopolitical risks, adopting a Tory attack line from past elections that the UK would be less safe under Labour.

People familiar with Sunak’s campaign plans said his focus on Rwanda during a morning broadcast round on Thursday was no accident — despite the awkward acknowledgment that deportation flights would not come before the vote.

The prime minister is trying to frame the election as a choice between deportation flights under the Tories or a Labour government scrapping what Sunak regards as a key deterrent, a senior Conservative official told Bloomberg, speaking on condition of anonymity discussing campaign strategy.

Sunak has long tried to present himself as tough on migration to try to win over voters attracted to the right-wing Reform UK, which is making inroads in districts the Conservatives desperately wanted to hold onto. Sunak got a boost Thursday when Reform’s founder Nigel Farage said he wouldn’t be a candidate — something Tory strategists feared would trigger a wipeout for their party.

The aim now is to try to capitalize. Sunak’s team will use the opening campaign days to tell voters that with Farage out of the picture, Reform is not a serious force in British politics, people familiar with their strategy said.

Conservative campaigners led by election chief Isaac Levido hope that repeating that message for two weeks will win back votes lost to Reform, eating into Labour’s poll lead and building momentum up to polling day, the people said.

Reform UK leader Richard Tice accused Sunak of running scared over the threat posed by his party, saying he’d “bottled it” by calling an early vote.

Using the promise of Rwanda flights immediately after the election was a key factor in the decision to call the surprise summer election, the people said. Over a month ago, Sunak aides pushing for a snap vote had proposed a slogan based on Rwanda deportation flights starting under Sunak and stopping under Starmer, Bloomberg reported at the time. Home Secretary James Cleverly used that line at a campaign event after Sunak called the election on Wednesday.

Read more: UK Migration Data Leave Sunak Under Pressure on Key Pledge

To be sure, with Labour well ahead in opinion polls and against a backdrop of more asylum-seekers crossing the English Channel so far this year, other Tories question whether Sunak’s team has found a winning strategy. One aide said it seemed more like an attempt to reduce the scale of the defeat.

Katie Hile, who worked under Sunak at the Treasury as a former head of economy and public spending communications, told Bloomberg Radio the prime minister’s strategy will likely be similar to the Tory leadership contest in 2022, when he lost out to Truss but narrowed her lead as the campaign went on. “He’ll take a similar approach of being the candidate of stability,” she said.

Statistics published Thursday also illustrated the challenge facing Sunak to build a campaign around tackling migration. While net migration to the UK did fall from a record last year, it was still at an historically high level. Reform will use that to accuse the Tories of broken promises on migration dating back to 2010.

In his own event, Starmer tore into Sunak’s migration lines. He said Labour’s focus would be on tackling the gangs arranging the migrant crossings, and accused the prime minister of misleading the public on his Rwanda plan.

“Rishi Sunak clearly does not believe in his Rwanda plan,” Starmer told supporters in Kent, where Labour is targeting seats where the migration issue is prominent. “He’s not going to get any flights off. He has called an election early enough to have it not tested before the election.”

Despite the prime minister’s bullishness on Rwanda, he cut a frustrated figure during a morning broadcast round when challenged on his decision to call an early election. Sunak said the moment was right because of economic data showing a decline in inflation to 2.3% and steady growth figures.

He also defended his move to announce the election in the pouring rain, which was criticized by colleagues and generated a slew of negative newspaper front pages. “I’m not a fair weather politician,” Sunak said on BBC Radio 4, trying to make light of what many saw as a disastrous campaign launch.

Still, Sunak will likely see the absence of Farage as a significant win. Had the Brexit campaigner entered the fray, the flow of Tory voters to Reform would likely have accelerated. For months, there has been the suggestion that Farage was enjoying mocking the Conservatives but that his real interest lies in helping Donald Trump become US president again. On Thursday, he made that official.

--With assistance from Isabella Ward, Tom Mackenzie and Stephen Carroll.

(Updates with Tice comment in 10th paragraph. An earlier version of this story was corrected to show the Rwanda plan is Sunak’s in sixth paragraph.)

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