Disaster in the Channel may soften hearts of the public, but is unlikely to change Tory policy
When Boris Johnson addressed backbenchers last week with his party gripped by a sleaze crisis, the topic of small boats crossing the Channel was raised more than any other, according to one MP present. While overall asylum applications are down on a year ago, the sharp increase in the number of arrivals by this dangerous and visible route was described by the home secretary last week as “unacceptable”.
Priti Patel has come under intense pressure from a No 10 heavily influenced by newspaper front pages to reduce the numbers of people making the crossing.
Allies of Johnson say he has been personally exercised about the issue for months. It carries a particular resonance because the constant refrain of Brexiters was that leaving the EU would enable the UK to “take back control” – including of the UK’s borders.
In practice that had the narrow meaning of ending the free movement of people, which led to an influx of millions of workers from Poland and other eastern European states. But Tory strategists know well that beneath some voters’ desire to “take back control” will have been a suspicion of immigration more generally.
Patel told MPs last week the problem was “complex” and resulted from a “global migration crisis” but the government’s solutions have tended to revolve around urging France to do more, rather than opening up safer routes for desperate refugees drawn to the UK by family ties or other pull factors.
Patel’s political instincts may well be to be tough on migration. But underpinning the government’s stance is also the fact that Tories believe their victories in a swath of former Labour seats in 2019 were driven by marrying a leftish economic agenda with a rightwing approach on social issues including, crucially, immigration. Concerns about winning back these voters has meant Labour has repeatedly criticised Patel for her failure to halt the arrival of small boats – her shadow Nick Thomas-Symonds recently accused her of having “lost control”, though he also called for safer routes to be opened up, including for lone children.
Meanwhile, with Conservative MPs becoming more exercised about the issue, it has been weaponised by Nigel Farage, who told the Telegraph’s Christopher Hope this week he was mulling a comeback to the front line of politics.
Farage has repeatedly filmed himself in Dover, watching for arrivals. Yesterday he tweeted: “Sad reports of multiple deaths in the Channel. After what I saw this morning it does not come as a surprise.”
While his Brexit party failed to win a single seat at the 2019 election, Farage’s impact on the direction of Conservative policy over the past five years and more is undeniable, and the fear of losing voters to a fringe party on their right alarms some Tories.
Many Conservatives are also scarred by the long period from 2010 when they set and repeatedly failed to meet a net migration target of “tens of thousands,” which – with free movement from the EU in place – they simply did not have the levers to achieve.
So while the shock of yesterday’s terrible tragedy may soften the hearts of the public, it appears unlikely to lead to a fundamental shift in the government’s approach, which has deep political roots.
The issue carries a resonance with Brexiters, for whom the refrain of ‘taking back control’ included the UK’s borders