I saw a little cloud no bigger than a man’s fist that was coming in from the sea, reported the servant of the Prophet Elijah to his master. In that Bible story, the incoming cloud was the sign of an impending rainstorm that the drought-hit land of Israel positively yearned for.
The political storm brewing in response to the dinghies coming in from the sea on the south coast of England every day will bring no such relief to Boris Johnson and his ministers.
Instead it will bring frustration and rage – the rage of voters witnessing the Government colluding in the wholesale exploitation of the asylum system by irregular economic migrants and people smugglers.
A year ago, during last summer’s commensurately smaller furore about rather fewer crossings, Boris Johnson said on ITV News: ‘We will send you back…If you come illegally, you are an illegal migrant and I’m afraid the law will treat you as such.’
Since then it appears, as uncovered by Nigel Farage, that instead of being turned back, adults crossing in dinghies can often expect to be escorted to shore and then whisked off to hotels, while unaccompanied minors routinely get sent into the care of the already overstretched Kent social services.
The extent of government paralysis on the issue was highlighted in a piece written by Immigration Minister Chris Philp, published in the Telegraph this weekend. Philp’s article mainly consisted of listing things that the government of France needed to do to solve Britain’s illegal immigration problem.
‘Firstly, the French need to stop these illegal migrants from getting in the water in the first place,’ he fumed. Another duty of the French apparently is to ‘ensure that migrants who are caught attempting to reach the UK by boat cannot do so again.’
Migrants ‘must be removed from Calais and given options to either seek protection in France or return to their home country. And they need to be fingerprinted so they know that once detected they face real consequences if they attempt to cross again.’
Finally, he seemed to get on to something the UK Government should do by observing: ‘We need to intercept those who manage to leave France and return those who make it to our shores’. But no, this apparently was largely a task for France as well: ‘That’s why I continue to push my French counterparts to look hard at interceptions at sea,’ he added.
The piece culminated in the observation that ‘the current system of returning people to safe countries… is not fit for purpose and can be frustrated by the current legal system.’
For a minister in an administration with a majority of 80 to complain about a legal framework without setting out any plans to change that framework is as intellectually bankrupt a position as it is possible to imagine. This may even have occurred to the PM who has started to wonder aloud about new laws, without giving any sign of having any more detailed thoughts about them.
The Home Office, led by the embattled Priti Patel, was reduced to briefing lobby correspondents about the fantasy prospect of Royal Navy vessels ‘pushing back’ dinghies into French waters – an obvious violation of the legal duty of seafarers to rescue those in distress. That one can safely be filed straight into the drawer marked ‘Not Gonna Happen’.
Clueless ministers should not seek comfort either in the fact that no opposition party represented in the Commons is making the English Channel shambles a campaigning issue. Voters know they need not look to Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens or nationalist parties for action against illegal immigration.
But anger within coastal communities and the working class ‘red wall’ towns that broke for the Tories in December is escalating quickly.
Ritual condemnations of the French and the parading of a few Royal Navy vessels in front of the cameras will not satisfy these voters. They know that only a serious and comprehensive set of reforms to the asylum system can sort out the problem by eliminating the ‘pull factor’ that Britain emits.
Universal detention of asylum applicants and a commitment not to allow any failed asylum-seeker to live in our society will have to be components of such a new approach. Very probably ID cards will also feature. Quite possibly the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights will have to be cast aside and the Human Rights Act repealed. Maybe long-term offshore accommodation for those refusing to return to their country of origin will need to be part of the mix.
All of this will involve doing battle with an establishment which increasingly does not believe in effective national borders at all – remember that Keir Starmer is committed to ending the currently legal indefinite detention of irregular migrants so that those who cannot be deported ultimately get to live in the UK in frustration of due process.
This is shaping up to be Brexit Mark II. Currently we are at the stage when a Tory administration tries to palm public opinion off with gimmicks and distractions while support for Nigel Farage grows. But should a new Farage party emerge and start eating into the Tory poll rating that will swiftly change.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, just for a change, the Government developed a coherent agenda and got stuck into implementing it simply because it thought that was the right thing to do?