The Tory position in the polls is weakening. Partly this is because of the vaccine bounce wearing off and a fortnight or so of sleaze stories. But, as I write in the Times today, ministers thinks that there’s another issue harming the government: small boats. ‘The sleaze is bad, but the issue that causes me most trouble with my constituents is the boats,’ says one cabinet member.
Johnson himself has long been concerned about this problem. He worries about the sense of disorder that the small boats convey: he thinks they make a mockery of ‘taking back control’ of the borders. A long-serving No. 10 aide says that ‘other than Covid, no issue has taken up more of the PM’s time’. But one of those involved in the debates about what to do admits that the government has been ‘going round in circles for 14 months’ on the issue.
Johnson is determined to break this logjam. The government is braced for a big fight with the Lords over the nationality and borders bill, which is going through parliament. There’ll be particular controversy over Australian-style powers to move migrants abroad while their claims are processed. One of those who has been involved in discussions about the legislation warns that ‘this bill could well require the Parliament Act to get it through’. If that is the case, it will not come into effect until 2023. But political allies of the Prime Minister believe the sight of him fighting to change the system will reassure voters he is serious, much as the Brexit rows showed he really was determined to get it done.
Offshore processing has come to look increasingly desirable as the difficulties of trying to turn boats around in the Channel have become apparent.