Priti Patel is being put under “immense pressure” from Downing Street and Conservative MPs over government efforts to halt Channel crossings in small boats, with No 10 refusing to say the home secretary had done a good job.
As figures revealed, the number of people making perilous crossings has tripled since 2020, Boris Johnson’s spokesperson twice declined to praise Patel’s strategy on Monday. He said the prime minister had “confidence in the home secretary” but would only say she has “worked extremely hard and no one can doubt this is a priority for her”.
A ministerial colleague of Patel said he had witnessed No 10 putting her in an “incredibly difficult position” and subjecting her to “immense pressure” when, in reality, stopping crossings by people seeking asylum in the UK was an intractable problem that could not be easily solved.
The government has repeatedly promised to make such crossings “unviable” and pledged tens of millions of pounds to France to help tackle the issue but more than 25,000 people have made the journeys this year. The Home Office confirmed that last week the number of refugees who had to be rescued reached 1,131 on a single day – the second highest daily figure since the current crisis began in 2019.
The home secretary has mooted various solutions including the controversial “offshoring policy”. Johnson has now given Steve Barclay, the Cabinet Office minister, responsibility for a cross-government review. One Tory MP said Johnson faced more anger from colleagues about small boat crossings when he addressed the 1922 Committee last week than over the handling of the sleaze scandal.
Supporters of Patel said they did not recognise claims she has been targeted by Downing Street, and insisted her team is “very supportive” of Barclay’s taskforce. “The only real plan on the table is the new plan for immigration,” the source said.
The source also hit back at MPs who claim she should step down, accusing them of “sniping’ without coming up with alternative policies. “I’ve seen lots of sniping from the sidelines but no real solutions from anyone else other than the home secretary,” a Home Office source said.
It is understood that Whitehall staff have been told Barclay has been brought to examine why the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has yet to move forward with agreements with other countries to let new arrivals be returned immediately. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Governmentis set to be asked to help find accommodation while the Ministry of Defence will be asked about the use of barracks to house asylum seekers.
In the Commons, several Tory MPs pushed for progress on Australian-style offshore processing centres, to which migrants would be flown within seven days of arriving in the UK. Richard Holden, MP for North West Durham, said: “We must now adopt an Australian approach to stopping these small boats in the channel. Offshore processing, towing them back, whatever it takes to secure our borders and stop the awful human trafficking.”
Sir Edward Leigh, a veteran Conservative backbencher told Patel that the government has “lost control” of the number of people crossing the Channel and described the situation as a “national emergency”.
“We told the people at the referendum, us Brexiteers, that we would take back control, it’s clear that in this we have lost control,” he said. “If you tell the most desperate economic migrants in the world that we will provide a free border service, taxi service across the Channel, we will never deport you, will put you up in a hotel as long as you like, is it any wonder that more and more come?
“This is now a national emergency. Will the home secretary bring in [an] emergency powers act to override the Human Rights Act if necessary and put these people in secure accommodation now?”
Patel said the Nationality and Borders Bill currently passing through parliament would help the government to crack down on crossings. “These changes are pivotal to absolutely bring a comprehensive reform to the entire system. There is no single solution to this and that is why this bill is so important,” she said.
The number of people who have made the journey across the English Channel in small boats this year is now three times the total for the whole of 2020. At least 886 people arrived in the UK on Saturday, bringing the total for the year to more than 25,600, according to Home Office statistics. Despite the increasing numbers of small boat arrivals, the UK continues to see far fewer boat arrivals and asylum claims than many of its European counterparts.