Elphicke defection controversy worth it for ruthless Starmer as he spoils Sunak’s moment on Dover visit | Politics News

“I am ruthless.”

That was Sir Keir Starmer’s account of himself and his decision to let Natalie Elphicke into the Labour Party on our trip to Dover on Friday to unveil his plan to stop the small boats.

Because for all the controversy her arrival on the Labour benches caused this week, for Sir Keir it was worth it.

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Starmer sets out what he’ll do to tackle small boat crossings

It allowed him to take the fight on migration directly to the frontline, Dover, and stand next to the now Labour MP, Ms Elphicke, telling the cameras that Mr Sunak had “failed to keep the borders secure” and “can’t be trusted”.

As a piece of political theatre, it was ruthless.

And the timing was ruthless too, coming on the day the UK had come out of recession.

Rishi Sunak had wanted the television bulletins to lead on turning the economic corner and “sticking with the plan”.

That’s not what he got.

Instead, the Labour leader used the Elphicke defection to skewer Rishi Sunak on small boats on the very day the prime minister wanted to get back on the front foot about the economy.

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Starmer commits fully to stopping Rwanda plan in Sky News interview

Starmer goes further than before in attack on Rwanda ‘gimmick’

Sir Keir did qualify his ruthlessness as not an end in itself.

“I’m ruthless in trying to ensure we have a Labour government who can change this country for the better,” he explained to me.

“Not ruthless for my own ambition, not ruthlessness particularly for the Labour Party. I’m ruthless for the country.

“The only way we’ll bring about a change in this country is if we’re ruthless about winning that general election and putting in place a government of public service, that’ll be a major change in politics.”

Calling the Rwanda scheme a “gimmick”, Starmer went further than he had before in our interview on Friday, telling me he will stop the flights from day one of a Labour government.

Instead, he outlined his own plan to create a new “elite” Border Security Command, made up of MI5 agents, Border Force officers, police, specialist investigators and prosecutors to target the criminal gangs.

This, he insisted, would be a better deterrent as he pledged to bring down the number of boat crossings “drastically” from the approximately 30,000 people who arrived in Britain via such crossings in 2023.

He also said he would reinstate a “rules-based asylum system” in which claims are processed and people are either returned to their country or granted asylum, as he criticised the government’s huge backlog of unprocessed claims.

Pic: PA
Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer, sits with new Labour MP Natalie Elphicke, during a visit to Dover, Kent, to set out his party's plans to tackle the small boats crisis if it wins the general election, with a pledge to end the Conservative party's 'talk tough, do nothing culture' on small boats crossing the English Channel. Picture date: Friday May 10, 2024.
Sir Keir Starmer with new Labour MP Natalie Elphicke. Pic: PA

But he admitted too after his speech that a Labour government would have nowhere to send thousands of migrants who had arrived from Afghanistan or Syria due to the lack of returns agreements with these war-torn countries.

I pushed him on targets: Would he commit to getting crossings down to 2020-type levels when 8,500 people came across on small boats?

But the Labour leader wouldn’t be drawn, telling me: “I’m not going to pluck out an arbitrary number” – as he took a swipe at Mr Sunak’s promise to ‘stop the boats’.

‘He’s going to open up our borders’

Rishi Sunak, for his part, was full of disdain – arguing that Starmer’s plan was to offer “an amnesty to illegal migrants” and that the Labour leader wasn’t offering anything new.

He said: “As far as I can tell all the things that we’re talking about today, are all things that we’re already doing – punching through the backlog, having more law enforcement officers do more, that’s all happening already.

“We’ve announced all of that more than a year ago.

“When it comes to illegal migration, it’s very simple – he’s just going to scrap the Rwanda plan and open up our borders.

“We’ve got a plan and we’re going to get our planes off.”

Read more:
A defection and intervention show Tories splintering
Officers raid homes of first people to be deported to Rwanda

Pic: Jacob King/PA
Rishi Sunak was out and about on Friday trying to talk up the economy. Pic: PA

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So far in 2024, 9,037 people have crossed the channel in small boats – 35% higher than at the same stage last year.

The prime minister has promised to stop the boats and get the Rwanda flights going within weeks.

But the country is divided on the plan, and sceptical too – with a YouGov poll in April showing a straight split between those who are supportive of the plan and those who are opposed, with only 23% of respondents believing it will be effective, against 55% of people saying they think it won’t.

It is a sign of confidence that Starmer, who has had to rebuild Labour’s reputation as a party of national security and law and order in the wake of the Corbyn years, now thinks this is a fight he can take to the Tories.

That he took in a right-wing Conservative with a controversial past in order to hammer home that point shows what he’s prepared to do to win.

The question now is whether his plan is more convincing to voters than the prime minister’s.


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