Lee Anderson’s ‘f*** off back to France’ remark risks making Tories ‘even nastier party’

Lee Anderson has been branded a “fascist” and a “pound shop Enoch Powell” for telling asylum seekers who don’t wish to be housed in a barge to “f*** off back to France”.

No 10 has defended the Tory deputy chairman, but the comments have sparked anguish among Tory moderates and fresh infighting – with the right of the party now pushing for Britain to quit a landmark human rights agreement.

One former Tory minister told The Independent the comments look “chaotic and unsophisticated – which puts Rishi in a slight mess”. Another ex-minister referred to Mr Anderson as a “fascist” who “does not represent the same party as me”.

Tory grandee Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general, told The Independent that “such foul language” will turn floating voters off and risked “making the Tories the even nastier party”.

Mr Grieve argued that it was a “sad commentary on the current state of the Conservative party” when its deputy chairman “resorts to crude and threatening profanities”.

The former minister said the silence from the cabinet in condemning Mr Anderson was “deafening” and the current justice secretary Alex Chalk had been “dragged down” by actively defending the rhetoric.

Mr Anderson has refused to apologise for his incendiary comments, made after a group of 20 migrants were granted a last-minute reprieve as the first group boarded the Bibby Stockholm barge in Dorset.

One senior Tory, a former minister, warned Mr Sunak against following Mr Anderson’s “cheap populism”. They urged colleagues to remember “this is as big a problem for France as it is for us”.

Nigel Mills, Tory MP for Amber Valley, told The Independent that it was “language we don’t want to use” and said Mr Anderson’s comments were not “consistent with the reality of how the asylum system works”.

But Mr Mills said the “underlying sentiment of, ‘If you don’t like it feel free to go somewhere else’, is quite widely shared.” He added: “We have to find a way of reducing this ridiculous hotel bill”.

Sir Jake Berry, the former Tory chairman, also said he agreed with the “sentiment” of Mr Anderson’s comments which “reflect the frustration of the British people”, but added that “it’s not the sort of language I would use”.

London mayor Sadiq Khan accused the government of stoking “division and hate”, while Liberal Democrats said the government’s defence of Mr Anderson was “toe-curling”.

Among the widespread condemnation, Chris McEleny, general secretary of Alex Salmond’s pro-independence Alba Party attacked “the broken politics of pound shop Enoch Powells”.

Lee Anderson says migrants can ‘f*** off back to France’ (UK Parliament /AFP via Getty Images)
Lee Anderson says migrants can ‘f*** off back to France’ (UK Parliament /AFP via Getty Images)

No 10 defended his remark on Tuesday, backing comments by Mr Chalk, who said Mr Anderson’s anger echoed the “righteous indignation of the British people” and were “not bigotry at all”.

Immigration minister Robert Jenrick also defended Mr Anderson on Wednesday, saying the senior Tory was “expressing the deep frustration of the British public”.

Mr Anderson doubled down in an interview on Tuesday evening. Asked by fellow GB News host Nigel Farage whether he felt his remark was “perhaps bad taste”, the MP said: “No ... it’s borne out of frustration. It’s borne out of me being absolutely furious.”

He added: “Like I say: if it [accomodation] is not good enough, then they should go back to France, in stronger words.”

However, Mr Anderson also appeared to criticise No 10, saying there was “no doubt about it” that Rishi Sunak’s government “have failed” in effectively “stopping the boats” – one of the PM’s five key pledges.

People look on at the Bibby Stockholm barge docked in Portland Port (EPA)
People look on at the Bibby Stockholm barge docked in Portland Port (EPA)

Labour’s shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said on Wednesday that the Tories were “promoting division” and “lashing out” due to their failures on tackling unlawful migration and the asylum backlog.

Ms Cooper told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It is clearly the wrong language to use and it is ramping up the rhetoric as a distraction from the fact the government is failing.”

First migrants board the Bibby Stockholm barge (PA)
First migrants board the Bibby Stockholm barge (PA)

It comes as Mr Jenrick suggested that Tories could quit a landmark international human rights agreement to help tackle the problem of small boats crossing the English Channel.

An unnamed minister told the BBC the party was now likely to campaign to leave the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) at the next election if Rwanda flights continue to be blocked.

Mr Jenrick told Times Radio said the government will do “whatever is required”, when pressed if that could mean pulling out of the ECHR.

One senior Tory moderate told The Independent that talk of quitting the ECHR came from a “noisy crowd” on the right, but “is not widely supported in the parliamentary party”.

Lord Michael Heseltine told The Independent that pulling out of the convention would “send an appalling signal to the world about Britain’s view of international law”.

The former deputy PM said it was part of the “Brexit disaster” – arguing that the right of the party “know Brexit has failed and is constantly looking for ways to reinforce prejudices”.

Mr Mills said he would rather push for “reform” of the European court at Strasbourg which oversees human rights cases, rather than pull out of the ECHR. But he warned the government may have to look at ways to “modify” UK membership if no progress is made.

The government’s position is that the UK will remain inside the ECHR. “As we’ve set out previously – we believe our stop the boats bill will deliver the changes necessary ... while remaining party to the ECHR.”

Meanwhile, asylum seekers who refuse to move onto the barge are being threatened with eviction and potential homelessness, as resistance hampers ministers’ ambitions to pack 500 people on board.

Immigration minister Robert Jenrick (PA Wire)
Immigration minister Robert Jenrick (PA Wire)

Mr Jenrick threatened to pull support for anyone who did refuse to go on the barge. “If you decline the accommodation that’s provided, such as a barge, then we will consider removing your asylum support and that individual will ultimately have to fend for themselves,” he told BBC Radio 4.

Mr Jenrick said on Wednesday that a “significant” number of asylum seekers who had objected to moving to barge have since changed their minds, as he warned there was not an “a la carte menu” of accommodation choices.

“A significant number moved yesterday, I suspect more will move in the coming days,” he told Times Radio. “I think this issue will be resolved.”

Mr Jenrick added: “We are a generous country ... but it is not an a la carte menu from which people can choose the particular hotel or location that suits them best. If you are destitute, then you will accept the decent accommodation the state is able to provide for you.”

The immigration minister also said he was unable to disclose how much money the UK had given Turkey as part of a deal to help crack down on unlawful migration.

Britain and Turkey have struck a new deal to address the surge in illegal migration, which will focus on co-ordinated actions to “disrupt and dismantle people smuggling gangs”. A new operational “centre of excellence” will be set up by the Turkish National Police.