EU Referendum

Immigration: something of interest


It has been a facet of the flood of illegal immigrants crossing the Channel in dinghies that the media have been behind the curve in reporting events. The running has been made by a few individuals, in the teeth of official opposition, posting photographs of the "invasion" on Twitter and other social media.

But if the media have been slow off the mark, MPs have been even slower publicly to acknowledge the scale of the problem, as I observed of Wednesday PMQs, when "sleaze" seemed to be the major preoccupation.

Despite being only a few days away from a terrorist bomb incident by a failed asylum seeker, in the context of tens of thousands of unvetted potential terrorists reaching our shores in dinghies from France, I wrote, not one MP, nor the leader of the opposition, thought to raise the issue with the prime minister.

Pete, on the other hand, has been raising the asylum issue on multiple occasions recently, with his latest offering as recently as yesterday. And, in so doing, it seems, he is far closer in touch with public sentiment than either the media or the politicians.

A hint of this came in The Times yesterday, which ran a piece headed: "Even Boris Johnson loyalists 'are worrying for him'", covering recent concerns over the prime minister's performance.

What marked out this piece as especially interesting was the observation that one of the biggest concerns in the Conservative parliamentary party was about small boats. While nothing had been raised in public, the prime minister had been repeatedly questioned about the issue at a Downing Street reception for the 2019 MP intake and at the 1922 Committee.

The Times cites a senior Tory MP (anonymous, of course), who tells the paper: "Everyone was saying that illegal immigration was the single biggest issue in their inboxes". Another Tory MP said: "The message at the last election was Get Brexit Done. People will not believe that when thousands of migrants are turning up on beaches in Kent every day".

According to the paper, Johnson reassured MPs that he viewed the issue as "a priority", and appeared to accept that present measures would not be enough. "He asked for our support for other measures, without saying what they were", one MP is cited as saying. "He said that they will be challenging and incur a lot of political flak".

The paper's report adds that Johnson is said to be "exasperated" by the lack of viable measures to deal with the crisis. He has ordered ministers to redouble efforts to find new solutions. Finally, we learn that, at the 1922 Committee, Johnson was greeted with the usual emphatic desk-banging from MPs. But as one of those present put it, "the louder they thump the desk the more trouble the PM is in".

If this is first hint, however, the sentiment becomes explicit in a Sunday Telegraph article headed: "Migrant crisis puts Tories in peril", with the sub-heading reading: "Senior figures warn PM as poll shows 77pc of Conservative voters believe Government approach to Channel crossings is 'too soft'".

As to the text, we are told that Johnson has been warned the migrant crisis could "destroy" the Conservative Party, as a Telegraph poll showed the overwhelming majority of Tory voters believe the Government's approach to Channel crossings is "too soft".

On top of that, a prominent party donor has declared that ministers must do "far more" to tackle the problem, warning that immigration is "going to destroy us and there is going to be a [Nigel] Farage-style party".

This anonymous donor has accused Johnson of mirroring David Cameron's drift to the centre during the Coalition administration, branding the situation "catastrophic". "When you move to the centre, you open up a gap in your right flank and somebody comes in and sets up there. You can't get a majority there", the donor says.

Johnson is also facing wider criticism coming from his own ministers, including those usually seen as loyalists, says the Telegraph, while an ex-frontbencher cautions that migration was hurting the party worse in the polls than the recent sleaze scandal. "If we don't deliver on migration, this is really damaging to us", he says.

This source adds that: "People are genuinely fed up with this. So I think you can be pretty tough. That will mean that we will end up in the courts, but the Government has got to fight this".

Another MP says that "right-wing activists" are already "getting organised" in seats in which they could cause damage to the Conservatives, who adds that the Tory party only clung on in some areas at the last election because the Brexit Party "stood away in all the key seats for the most part".

We then get James Frayne, described as "an influential pollster", who echoes warnings that the Conservatives are "seriously vulnerable" to a new political party emerging from the right, due to "perceived failings on fiscal policy and asylum and immigration".

This will not be Richard Tice's Reform party which is has border control and immigration well down its list of priorities. Rather, we may see the re-emergence of Ukip or even a revival of a BNP clone which is able to capitalise on the ground-swell of concern about uncontrolled immigration.

This can hardly be a distant, academic prospect. Frayne notes that, "For the first time, small boats were brought up in a focus group of working-class voters in Long Eaton a couple of weeks ago". This, he says, "was before recent coverage of record numbers arriving", adding: "I expect this to be a more significant feature of the groups I run this week".

The Telegraph also adds more detail the rendition offered by The Times about last week's 1922 committee meeting. Apparently, some of the MPs who confronted Johnson were "livid". Sources in the room said Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative leader, was the first to challenge Johnson, saying: "Migration was in our manifesto, it was in our DNA. If we don't do it, they won't forgive us".

It was that intervention, we are informed, which prompted dozens of MPs to bang their hands on the desks and walls of the committee room - the traditional display of support in 1922 meetings . At least three other MPs are said to have expressed similar concerns.

The immediate response to this has been to draft in Steve Barclay, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, to lead a review on prevention measures. He will be responsible for exploring what ministerial departments can do in an effort to make the issue more of a priority in government and the civil service.

This has not gone down too well with MPs, one having said: "It's all very well putting Steve Barclay on it. What's he going to find out? That they need to get on with the bloody thing. The Prime Minister should be backing up his Home Secretary. She's come up with options".

And with that. things do seem to be moving. The possibility of Ghana entering "third country asylum partnerships" with the UK has been raised, and Whitehall has confirmed that Britain is in talks with other countries about offshoring processing.

Immigration is now said to have dominating the agenda in Downing Street more than any other issue bar Covid since Johnson entered No 10. He has told allies he is committed to pursuing all possible solutions.

However. Adam Holloway, a Conservative member of the Commons home affairs committee and MP for Gravesham, in Kent, points to another "key issue" – the courts who "will let people stay, even though most of them are the relatively wealthy people ... most are economic migrants".

This is leading to calls for legislation to "neutralise" the Human Rights Act in order to allow the government to take tougher action. No doubt, we will also be seeing calls to modify the application of the UK Refugee Convention and related measures.

And while the Observer is doing its best to project the "dinghy people" as "fleeing persecution or conflict", that paper is going to find it hard going.

According to the Telegraph, the issue is beleaguering MPs far beyond the east coast of England, where the dinghies are arriving. David Jones, the former Brexit minister, said that even though he represents a seat in north Wales not directly impacted by Channel crossings, it is "the biggest political issue in my correspondence".

With each illegal migrant having paid up to £7,000 a year ago, and between £1,500 and £3,000 currently, enriching criminal gangs to the tune of tens of millions, few are going to be convinced that these institutional queue-jumpers are anything but criminals themselves.

Also published on Turbulent Times.