Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss clashed on Sunday over immigration policy, as both candidates sought to present themselves as the best option to take control of the UK’s borders.
Even as the two rival camps continued to trade blows over tax cuts and economic credibility, both sides opened a new front in the battle for No 10 as each candidate offered tough new policies and hard-edged language on illegal migration.
It came as Mr Sunak, on the campaign trail on Sunday, faced questions over whether his plans to tackle illegal migration would prove legal.
Calling the current system “broken”, he offered a 10-point plan on Sunday that included a commitment to a narrower definition of who qualifies for asylum compared to that from the ECHR, with enhanced powers to detain, tag and monitor illegal migrants.
Mr Sunak also promised to give Parliament control over who comes to the UK by creating an annual cap on the number of refugees accepted each year, albeit one that can be changed in the case of sudden emergencies.
Mr Sunak said if he wins the party vote, top of his agenda will be a meeting with French president Emmanuel Macron to find a solution to small boat crossings, which he also suggested should be tackled with a new cross-Government taskforce.
Those proposals were picked apart by Truss allies, who raised questions about Mr Sunak’s proposals, arguing that it was unclear how the refugee quota would work and suggesting that some of his plans amounted to a “rebrand”.
Allies of Ms Truss also questioned a suggestion from Mr Sunak that illegal migrants could be housed on cruise ships, something the Truss camp suggested would amount to arbitrary detention and a breach of both domestic and international law.
Mr Sunak sought to defend his proposals on Sunday afternoon, telling the BBC that tackling illegal migration was a “priority” for him.
But he was unable to give a clear assurance that his policy proposals would be legal.
“What we do need to do is be very honest about the challenges that the ECHR, these European laws, have on our ability to grapple with this problem.
“I’ve said that no options should be off the table. We have a new British Bill of Rights that’s being introduced into Parliament that I believe will help solve the challenges.
“And I’ve put some other further points in the plan today saying how we could do things differently from the European Convention to strengthen our ability to deport people who shouldn’t be here and protect our borders.”
He also appeared to defend the idea that illegal migrants could be housed on ships, telling the BBC he was prepared to look at “novel” and “creative” solutions.
The Truss campaign said that as prime minister she would increase the UK’s frontline Border Force by 20% and double the Border Force Maritime staffing levels, with Ms Truss claiming that her plan to tackle illegal migration would be given a strong legal foundation by the new UK Bill of Rights.
A source close to Ms Truss said she had been involved in developing the “generation-defining” Rwanda policy, and had been frustrated at ECHR “mission creep”.
Both candidates were united in defending the controversial Rwanda asylum scheme, by which Britain currently stands to lose the £120 million it has paid to Rwanda if the plan to deport migrants is ruled unlawful by the courts.
Ms Truss said that the Rwanda scheme is the “right” policy, and said it could be expanded to include other countries.
Mr Sunak made a similar pledge on Rwanda, saying that “no option should be off the table” to ensure it succeeds.
It is despite officials from the east African nation’s government confirming this week it had received the entire initial payment for the agreement signed in April and that the funds are already “committed”.
The first deportation flight was grounded in June after a series of legal challenges, and another attempt is yet to be scheduled.
But both candidates’ plans have faced criticism, with Oxfam labelling as “cruel” any plan to link UK aid payments to countries’ co-operation with immigration removals.
“If anything, this shows that the heat of campaigning leads to bad policy,” said Sam Nadel, Oxfam’s head of government relations.
“To meet a world in desperate crisis – facing climate change, famine and conflict – with cruel policies such as these would not live up to the role. We need more aid and safe and legal routes to the UK.”
Steve Valdez-Symond, the Amnesty International’s refugee and migrant rights programme director, said: “Making promises and policy based on nothing more than what is thought to appeal to some Conservative party members is precisely what our present Home Secretary has done for the last three years.
“It is why our asylum system has collapsed into chaos and backlogs – all at great human and financial cost.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper also criticised the proposals, accusing the candidates of wasting taxpayers’ money on the Rwanda scheme.
She said: “The Conservatives have been in power for 12 years. It beggars belief that they claim to be the ones to sort things out when they have both failed for so long.”
On Sunday, Welsh Secretary and Sunak supporter Sir Robert Buckland rejected such concerns, calling the proposals “humane”.
Both candidates will have an opportunity to make a fresh impression on the public on Monday, with the pair set to face-off in the first of a series of televised debates.
on Saturday, Mr Sunak had used a speech in Margaret Thatcher’s birthplace of Grantham in Lincolnshire where he labelled the tax plans of Ms Truss “immoral”.
Tory grandees Chris Patten, Norman Lamont and Malcolm Rifkind all told The Observer that Mrs Thatcher would not have approved of cutting taxes to curb inflation.
Therese Coffey, the Work and Pensions Secretary and Truss backer, rejected those comments.
In a sign of the divisions within the party, she told Sky News: “Well, I don’t know the basis on which they’re saying that. Many of them were not in the original Margaret Thatcher Cabinet at the start of when she took over in 1979.”