“The only way to take back control of immigration is to Vote Leave,” Boris Johnson declared during the 2016 referendum. Priti Patel, his fellow Brexit campaigner, said: “There’s another great bonus of leaving the EU – we’ll be able to design a new immigration system that brings the chaos under control and helps the economy.”
Life was so easy then. It is much harder now the prime minister and his home secretary have become the governing establishment they once railed against. The new poachers are the Conservative MPs accusing Johnson and Patel of welcoming the “invading migrants” entering Britain after crossing the English Channel in small boats.
To the embarrassment of Johnson and Patel, the Brexiteers’ pledge to “take back control” of the UK’s borders has been exposed as hollow on two fronts. The government’s failure to bring in quarantine for UK arrivals at the start of the coronavirus pandemic was a grave error. When the Vote Leave-dominated government should have been tough on immigration on public health grounds, it was soft.
The UK was almost unique at the time in not having border checks or quarantine measures. Ministers have rightly been held to account in an excoriating report by the Commons home affairs select committee. Thousands of infected people are believed to have imported Covid-19 from Europe in the run-up to the 23 March lockdown. The MPs found it “highly likely” this contributed to the scale of the UK’s outbreak. Self-isolation for 14 days was not introduced until June. One for the eventual public inquiry into the government’s coronavirus response, surely.
The committee, chaired by Labour’s Yvette Cooper, is now turning its attention to the arrival of more than 4,000 refugees and migrants via the channel this year. These “invaders” are desperate people prepared to risk their life to get to Britain. They are not all economic migrants as the Tory backbenchers claim; more than half of the 35,000 people claiming asylum in the UK each year win some form of protection, with more claims approved on appeal.
A rounded response would see the government look at safer ways to apply for asylum, for example for family reunions and allowing in more child refugees, but there is little chance of that.
The numbers crossing the channel are still relatively small. But television pictures of the crowded dinghies make very uncomfortable viewing for ministers. They know many of the working class Leave voters won over by Johnson last December will demand action over what Patel would once have attacked as “chaos”.
The home secretary is still a poacher at heart and would probably be happier writing letters to the home secretary demanding a “hostile environment” for the invaders, like her backbench soulmates. Patel has floated silly stunts like using the royal navy to “send back” migrants’ boats, a proposal rightly dismissed as “completely potty” by Ministry of Defence sources.The navy can’t do any more than the Border Force, and the international law of the sea means that people in danger must be rescued.
Patel tried to combat the bad TV pictures by going on a patrol boat herself. But her “self-crafted promo video” was criticised by broadcasters when she refused to be interviewed. Despite holding one of the great offices of state, Patel is rarely allowed in front of a real camera by Downing Street.
Johnson’s reaction has been little better. Predictably, he rushed out a pledge to bring in a new asylum law. But gesture politics does not change the fact that the UK needs an agreement with France on how to tackle the problem.
So the futile “blame France” rhetoric has been dialled down and Chris Philp, the immigration minister, went to Paris for talks yesterday. He promised a “comprehensive action plan” but was unable to what say what it was. A charitable explanation is that he did not want to tip off the people traffickers who exploit the desperate migrants. A less charitable one is that he didn’t want to admit yet the UK might hand France about £30m to step up efforts to halt the crossings.
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Britain’s attempt to reach an asylum deal as part of its talks on an EU trade deal was rebuffed by those on the continent, which declined to include it in Michel Barnier’s negotiating mandate. Johnson and Patel will never admit it, but the UK would almost certainly have enjoyed more influence on this issue inside the EU club than it has now as a “third country” with which the EU has decided to play hardball.
When the post-Brexit transitional period ends in December, the UK will no longer be part of the EU’s Dublin convention, under which some asylum seekers are returned to the first EU country they enter. There is no guarantee the UK will be able to negotiate an asylum agreement with the EU as a whole or its individual governments. Johnson’s headline-grabbing domestic law won’t pass muster.
The supreme irony is that, despite all those Vote Leave promises, Brexit is making it harder to control UK borders. One for the history books.