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Controversial Rwanda deportation plan is ‘dead and buried’: New U.K. prime minister

Starmer’s Cabinet features a record number of women

British Prime Minister Keir Starmer said Saturday that he is scrapping his predecessor’s controversial policy to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda as he vowed to deliver on voters’ mandate for change, though he warned it will not happen quickly.

“The Rwanda scheme was dead and buried before it started,” Starmer said in his first news conference since the Labour Party swept Conservatives from power after 14 years. “It’s never acted as a deterrent. Almost the opposite.”

Starmer told reporters in a wood-paneled room at 10 Downing St. that he was “restless for change,” but would not commit to how soon Britons would feel improvements in their standards of living or public services.

The 30-minute question-and-answer session followed his first Cabinet meeting as his new government takes on the massive challenge of fixing a heap of domestic woes and winning over a public weary from years of austerity, political chaos and a battered economy.

“We have a huge amount of work to do, so now we get on with our work,” Starmer told them.

Starmer’s Cabinet features a record number of women — 11 of 25 ministers. Nearly all members went to public schools, another record that is a sharp break from Conservative ministers who have historically come with private school pedigrees.

“I’m proud of the fact that we have people around the Cabinet table who didn’t have the easiest of starts in life,” Starmer said.

Among a raft of problems they must tackle are boosting a sluggish economy, fixing an ailing health care system, and restoring trust in government.

“Just because Labour won a big landslide doesn’t mean all the problems that the Conservative government has faced has gone away,” said Tim Bale, politics professor at Queen Mary University of London.

Starmer in his first remarks as prime minister Friday singled out several of the big items, such as fixing the revered but hobbled National Health Service and securing the U.K.’s borders, a reference to a larger global problem of absorbing an influx of migrants fleeing war, poverty as well as drought, heat waves and floods attributed to climate change.

Conservatives struggled to stem the flow of migrants arriving across the English Channel, failing to live up to ex-Prime Minister’s Rishi Sunak’s pledge to “stop the boats.”

The controversial Rwanda plan was billed as a solution that would deter migrants from risking their lives on a journey that could end up with them being deported to East Africa. So far, it has cost the government hundreds of millions of dollars and never taken flight.

Starmer denounced it as a “gimmick,” though it’s unclear what he will do differently as a record number of people have come ashore in the first six months of the year.

“Labour is going to need to find a solution to the small boats coming across the channel,” Bale said. “It’s going to ditch the Rwanda scheme, but it’s going to have to come up with other solutions to deal with that particular problem.”

Suella Braverman, a Conservative hard liner on immigration who is a possible contender to replace Sunak as party leader, criticized Starmer’s plan to end the Rwanda pact.

“Years of hard work, acts of Parliament, millions of pounds been spent on a scheme which had it been delivered properly would have worked,” she said Saturday. “There are big problems on the horizon which will be, I’m afraid, caused by Keir Starmer.”

Starmer will have a busy schedule following the six-week campaign. He heads out Sunday to visit each of the four nations of the U.K. — England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. He plans to meet with metropolitan mayors, regardless of party, saying he’s not a “tribal politician.”

He will then travel to Washington for a NATO meeting Tuesday and will host the European Political Community summit July 18, the day after the state opening of Parliament and the King’s Speech, which sets out the new government’s agenda.

Starmer has had phone calls with several world leaders, including U.S. President Joe Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, European Union leader Ursula von der Leyen and Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

He sent Foreign Secretary David Lammy on Saturday to Germany, Poland and Sweden.

Meanwhile, Health Secretary Wes Streeting said he would open new negotiations next week with NHS doctors at the start of their career who have staged a series of multi-day strikes. The pay dispute has exacerbated the long wait for appointments that have become a hallmark of the NHS’s problems.

In starker language than he’s used before, Starmer echoed Streeting’s description of the NHS as “broken.”

“Everybody who uses it and works in it knows that it is broken,” he said. “We’re not going to operate under the pretense or language that doesn’t express the problem as it is because otherwise we won’t be able to fix the problem as quickly as we need to.”

Jill Lawless And Brian Melley, The Associated Press

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