David Cameron should be in real trouble over Calais. It goes to the heart of two of the central issues by which British voters judge governments: are you competent and can you control immigration. Judging by the unstoppable growth of the chaotic ‘Jungle‘, the increasing number of assaults on Eurotunnel staff and the rising number of tragic and needless deaths, we know the answer to the competence question. To paraphrase Sam Goldwyn, there are two words for the government: incompetent.
Every time a minister comes on the radio or TV to explain what the government is doing, I immediately think ‘who is that useless Lib Dem junior minister? No 10 must hate having to compromise on immigration policy.’ Then I remember. James Brokenshire is a minister in a Conservative government with a working majority in a country in which over half the voters backed right-wing parties. And given this, what is his policy? Hugs and kisses for the French, plus some cash. A bigger fence and some more dogs. This is a policy so weak, so vapid, so ineffective, that even a Labour/Lib Dem/SNP coalition would not have thought of it.
What’s going on? Well for one thing, everyone in government has drunk the Foreign Office Kool-Aid. You know, the line that no action can ever be taken in case it ‘damages our relationship’. So we can never get cross with our neighbours or allies. We can never ask them to do anything. No 10 and the Home Office will be being advised not to be beastly to the French for fear of the consequences. Imagine if France got angry; they might do something terrible, like allow migrants to travel across French borders, choose the UK as their nominated country of asylum and set up camp near some point where they could try and get into Britain illegally. That would be a truly terrible result, right?
So a Tory government is colluding with a French Socialist one to pretend that Calais is a process problem not a point of principle. The public don’t agree and people are becoming increasingly frustrated. The descent of the Labour leadership campaign into a dangerous and delusional pantomime has given David Cameron a break. It won’t last forever. Controlling your own borders is a fundamental aspect of security and is the foundation of trust in government. Public anger will find its way. I doubt that one in a hundred voters knows that the Home Affairs Select Committee warned of this earlier this year. But at least ninety-nine in a hundred believe that the government either knew this was coming and did nothing or simply didn’t see it coming. Neither is acceptable to voters.
What is most mystifying in this whole saga is the absence of anyone speaking for Britain. There is a reason why Labour is silent, but the Tories? Have they all accepted that refugees and asylum seekers are entitled to shop around for the country they most want to apply to? Why no voice saying loudly and clearly:
‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.’
‘It is not right for some to jump the queue while other refugees and asylum seekers ply by the rules and wait their turn.’
The first half of that proposition should be familiar to many. It was said by John Howard, then Prime Minister of Australia in 2001 and has basically framed the entire political debate about immigration in the country since then. So not only is there a successful model for Cameron to adopt, he can also ask a close friend – Lynton Crosby – how the Australian Liberals did it.
But words need actions – and I don’t mean stronger fences and meaner dogs. The Prime Minister needs to set out what the UK will do. Having said the UK will choose who does or does not come to live here, the PM needs to be clear that France and other EU countries are at fault – asylum seekers should claim in the first safe country they arrive in. Tough on Italy and Greece, but they need rapid and secure assessment of asylum claims followed by settlement or repatriation. For refugees more than most, justice delayed is justice denied.
For those who have reached Calais, the PM needs to offer a British assessment of their claim. As it is clear that the French have no intention of speeding up processing we should intervene. Britain exported its borders to Calais, now it’s time to export our system for applying for asylum or refugee status. Setting up shop in Calais may seem perverse but if people think they have a chance of coming to the UK we should prove or disprove that fact rapidly. The lack of clarity about what can happen allows myths to flourish. The French should then take responsibility for deporting anyone who has no claim to come to Britain.
If this can be done, then the UK needs to help the EU go upstream to stop the people traffickers and ultimately remove the source of the flow of refugees. Turning back the boats has worked in Australia; properly done, it can work in the Mediterranean too. If our navies don’t know how, the Aussies can advise. But the lawlessness in Libya that allows the people traffickers – primarily Isis – to flourish needs to be tackled. David Cameron burned down the Libyan state; he needs to take responsibility for rebuilding it and depriving Isis of cash, power and influence. Is there a higher priority for our growing international aid budget? And then there’s Syria. We can stop the refugees if we stop Isis.
So many interconnected problems. All with a solution, just not more barbed wire and sniffer dogs. Political rhetoric, political will, political action. Learn from John Howard, Mr Cameron, for if you don’t Labour surely will.