A leak inquiry has been launched amid a furious Whitehall briefing war over bizarre proposals for dealing with asylum seekers and illegal migrants.
A string of leaked documents has revealed outlandish ideas for “offshoring” the problem by housing asylum seekers in centres on Ascension or St Helena in the south Atlantic, in Papua New Guinea, on ferries, disused oil rigs or a Scottish island, or even stopping migrant boats by creating artificial waves or barriers in the English Channel.
Downing Street has done nothing to stop speculation about possible policies, saying only that the Government is looking to reform its policies to deal with “abuse of the system and the criminality associated with it” and is looking at ideas tried in “a host of countries” around the world.
But there are suspicions behind the scenes in government that the appearance of a series of stories in quick succession is designed to undermine home secretary Priti Patel.
Some insiders are pointing the finger of blame at Boris Johnson’s top adviser Dominic Cummings.
One Whitehall source speaking to the Politico Playbook suggested that the source may be officials disgruntled with the Johnson administration and fearful of the “hard rain” shake-up of the civil service which Cummings has threatened.
“There is a rotten core of civil servants who have never gotten over Brexit and fear the hard rain that is coming,” said the anonymous source. “They're the enemy within and will be rooted out.”
Another government source told The Times that many of the most controversial ideas were being driven by Mr Cummings.
“Priti is being used as a punchbag,” the source said. “She’s being caught in the crossfire. A lot of this stuff is coming from No 10 but people are too scared to say it. People are so afraid of crossing Dom that they are pinning it on other departments.”
The Home Secretary was said to be “furious” that she was being identified as the driving force behind ideas like farming out the job of processing asylum seekers to countries thousands of miles from Britain like Moldova in eastern Europe, Morocco or Papua New Guinea.
An ally was reported by MailOnline as saying: “People are having a bit of a free-for-all. There is a lot of briefing from the Cabinet Office.”
But a Cabinet Office source tried to pin responsibility on Patel, telling Politico: “Do you really think the Cabinet Office is spending its time working out how to pump waves across the Channel to France? This nonsense is coming from brain-dead morons in the Home Office.”
Some of the proposals - such as a wave machine to wash small boats back to France - are understood to have been “blue sky” ideas knocked around in brainstorming sessions but quickly dismissed as impractical.
And Ms Patel is believed to have accepted that the idea of shipping migrants 4,000 miles to share tiny Ascension Island with an RAF base and a space rocket-tracking station was too expensive and too difficult.
Mr Johnson’s official spokesman said he “did not recognise” some of the ideas leaking into the public domain, but refused to discuss which ones were still under consideration.
However, the home secretary’s top civil servant Philip Rycroft told a Commons committee the offshoring plans were still at an early stage and “everything is on the table”.
Mr Rycroft confirmed that a leak inquiry had been launched by the Cabinet Office, indicating that it would take into account the timing of the leaks and the question of whether they were politically motivated.
There are suspicions in Westminster that the flurry of leaks of improbable ideas was designed to discredit more likely schemes, like hostels for migrants on the Isle of Wight, Isle of Man or Shetland Islands.
Officials are understood to have been told to look into the option of housing 1,400 people on a disused 40-year-old ferry costing £6 million from Italy or a disused cruise ship from Barbados which would cost £116 million and could accommodate 2,417 people.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon gave very short shrift to the idea of any new camp being sited on any of Scotland’s islands.
“They can rest assured that any proposal to treat human beings like cattle in a holding pen will be met with the strongest possible opposition from me,” she said.
And Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer condemned the “inhuman” ideas being floated within government. He said: “This isn’t creative thinking, this is lurching from one ridiculous proposition to the next – these suggestions are inhuman and the government shouldn’t be pursuing them. “Everybody knows that the biggest problem with asylum seekers’ claims is that it takes a long time for the Home Office to process them, that’s the problem, it’s been there for years. “Get your house in order, get that sorted out instead of lurching from one ridiculous proposition to another.” Environment secretary George Eustice, said he did not recognise the reported Ascension Island proposal.
“What we are looking to do is to improve the asylum process,” he said. “We have got an unsustainable position at the moment with too many illegal crossings and we need a way to process those applications.”