Rishi Sunak has renewed a promise to stop people being smuggled across the Channel, despite coming away from his first face-to-face talks with Emmanuel Macron without any firm commitments.
The prime minister vowed to “get a grip of this situation” and promised details about the progress of cross-Channel talks “in the coming weeks”, with No 10 hoping to make a major announcement before Christmas.
Downing Street sources said the talks were never meant to be a breakthrough and Sunak himself tried to set expectations back home by downplaying the prospect of the problem being solved overnight.
However, Conservative MPs continued to hold his feet to the fire in parliament. The backbench MP Scott Benton said constituents were wondering whether “we can’t be bothered to solve this issue”.
As he prepared to fly back from Egypt, Sunak insisted the talks with the French president on Monday had left him with “renewed confidence and optimism” that he could “stop people coming illegally”.
Deflecting questions about any concrete actions agreed or a timetable, the prime minister told broadcasters: “We all want this situation to resolve itself as quickly as possible” but it remained a “complex issue”. He added: “There’s a range of things we need to do.”
Sunak struck a constructive tone about the talks with Macron, one of his first bilateral meetings with a foreign leader since his premiership began two weeks ago. He said it was “great” to meet the French president and reasserted his belief that countries would be able to “get a grip of this situation”.
The prime minister’s spokesperson confirmed a deal between the UK and France “has been discussed and is in its final stages”.
In its readout of the talks, Downing Street said both leaders had stressed the “urgency of cracking down on criminal smuggling gangs” and committed to “continue working together”.
The Elysée said Sunak and Macron had “agreed to remain in contact to advance coordination between their two countries in the face of the challenge of irregular migration”.
Previous attempts to curb the number of people arriving on the south coast of England to claim asylum have failed to stem a significant increase in the number of people taking the dangerous journey.
A deal worth £55m was signed with France in July 2021 to help fund more police to patrol the French beaches, and negotiations with Macron are likely to bolster the current arrangement.
Downing Street insiders talked down the chance that any new guarantees secured would themselves be a “silver bullet”.
The home secretary, Suella Braverman, herself admitted last week that the asylum system was “broken”, with the number of arrivals in small boats having risen to about 40,000 this year and leading to delays in processing applications.
The past week for which the government has published data – commencing 24 October – shows there were 1,766 arrivals on 41 boats.