When the government was embroiled in a storm about sleaze earlier this month, Boris Johnson addressed a private meeting of the 1922 committee of Tory MPs.
The headline was his admission to them that “on a clear road, I crashed the car” over the Owen Paterson affair. But the vast majority of the questions at that meeting were about small boats.
Days earlier, on 12 November, a new record had been set with 1,185 migrants crossing the Channel to Kent.
A senior government official told me, before last night’s tragedy, that there have been more meetings in Number 10 about this issue than any other apart from COVID over the past two years. It is an issue which has massive traction with voters and Conservative MPs.
But while the Home Secretary has declared that she is working to make this route “unviable”, the numbers coming by small boat are only rising.
In government, there is focus on two fronts: enforcement in cooperation with French and European authorities; and reform of the asylum system in the UK. Both are slow-going and fraught with difficulties.
Britain has pledged £54million to French authorities to help them patrol over 100 miles of coastline – some of which has been delivered.
But French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has described the payments as minimal, and has been angered in recent weeks by Home Office briefings about pushing back vessels towards France – an idea now regarded as unworkable.
With the backdrop of a presidential election in April, in which immigration is set to be a big issue, French politicians have said the UK needs to do more about the pull factors for migrants, including tighter enforcement of illegal work, and quicker deportation of those whose asylum claims have been refused.
The Home Office says all these issues are being addressed in the Nationality and Borders Bill, which will attempt “wholesale reform of the asylum system”. But the legislation is being challenged in Parliament by opposition parties and some prominent Conservatives.
The measures to allow processing of migrants in third countries – with several, including Albania, mooted but none showing much interest thus far – have been deeply controversial, and legal questions have been raised over an attempt to stop asylum applicants putting in more than one appeal against deportation.
The government knows the key challenge is cooperation with France, and indeed other European countries, with concerns also raised that many of those encamped in France have previously been in Germany or Belgium for many months.
The souring of relations has not been helped by rows over Brexit and fishing; Northern Ireland, and the concern among senior Conservatives that France wants to see the UK punished for leaving the EU.
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Joint patrols with the French are being actively explored, which could operate at sea or in a way which would not violate French sovereignty.
Last night’s tragedy has given the need to find solutions a new urgency, but there are few easy or quick answers.