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MICHAEL WHITE: Sajid Javid has turned a migrant drama into a crisis

Home secretary Sajid Javid has turned drama at Dover into a crisis, says Michael White. Photo: PA - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Michael White says the home secretary’s overreaction to the migrant drama at Dover was too tempting for a vote-hungry politician to resist

After Theresa May’s latest near-death experience at the hands of Tory MPs in mid-December there was some talk of a Brexit Christmas truce, like that staged by soldiers in the mud of Flanders in 1914. But some small arms fire and the occasional eruption of the big guns punctuated 2018’s festive silent nights, along with those pesky drones at Gatwick and the – almost as elusive – armada of migrant boats off Dover.

It was pretty wild firing in all directions, I felt, plenty of it within the same trench, rather than across no-man’s land. And am I right to have sensed that trigger-happy Brexit MPs and pundits were keener than the rest of us to shoot down those Gatwick drones, real and imagined? Always eager for a no-nonsense solution, eh, preferably with bangs. They’ll soon be calling for the Trident nuclear fleet to patrol the Channel against people smugglers.

Would home secretary, Sajid Javid, oblige? In the present febrile climate he just might. After all, the demagogue in Donald Trump deployed troops against his own armada on the Mexican border – he called it an invading caravan. The White House has closed a chunk of the federal government in pursuit of his fantasy wall against Latino migrants when the real demographic tide now changing the US has long come through airports from Asia, from India as well as China and all points in between.

Of all cabinet ministers Javid, a second generation Asian migrant himself, should be sensitive to the wider realities. His long-delayed immigration white paper, resisted by May, shows some understanding. Well-meaning liberals who protest at what they see as harsh treatment of asylum seekers and refugees might usefully do the same. Many are economic migrants, not victims of persecution or self-styled ‘children’. While Europe and North America can absorb some, its public services and social cohesion cannot embrace them all.

But Dover is too emotive, too tempting for a vote-hungry politician to resist. Why? Because in as much as there was any strategic coherence to festive political sniping much of it was less about the immediate Brexit challenge in the Commons than about wannabe Tory leadership contenders striking popular postures in case our prime ministerial Houdini can’t escape again in 2019.

Currently 37th out of 54 PMs in the Downing St longevity stakes May is closing in on No.36, Spencer Perceval, a fellow Tory and – back in 1812 – the only British prime minister to have been assassinated. So far. MPs and pundits on all sides have been predicting May’s imminent demise almost since ‘Submarine Theresa’ succeeded David Cameron after the 2016 referendum.

I’ve always bet on her survival and am obviously going to be wrong one day. In order to see off the blustering Moggsters by 200 votes to 113 (Jake as ungracious as ever in defeat) May even conceded that she does not expect to fight the next election. That’s the one due in 2022, not the one dithering Jeremy Corbyn claims to want this year as an alternative (ie excuse) for not backing the People’s Vote. No less than 72% of his party members want a second referendum so that 88% can vote Remain, according to this week’s polling by YouGov and Professor Tim Bale.

May says she doesn’t want one either. It’s an odd, very un-British deadlock, of a kind more familiar to Washington. Before the coalition passed its expedient Fixed-term Parliaments Act in 2011 a government that wanted a bill passed either made it a vote of confidence – to bring the Moggs and Soubrys into line – or it fell. Then someone else had a go or there was an election and a fresh mandate of some kind from the voters. No longer. We have a zombie government and something of a zombie opposition too.

If in a few days time May gets her Brexit deal through parliament’s ‘meaningful vote’ – still a big if I realise – she may surprise us all by stepping aside (‘job done’) after March 29. Until that happens – and I doubt that it will – I see no reason to revise my opinion that the Mays will still be signing Downing St Christmas cards next December if she so wishes. In fact, she is quite safe until enough Tories can unite around a candidate who can tie his or her shoe laces together without help.

As should also be obvious to everyone – but isn’t, despite persistent polling evidence that puts the shambolic Tories ahead of Labour – her position is further buttressed by Corbyn’s craven tactics. The leadership cabal’s cynical ambiguity on Brexit defies the very mass membership it purports to revere, as well as the basic rule of leadership, which is to lead. YouGov’s new polling suggests that starry-eyed support for their leader’s fence-sitting is shrinking. Some union leaders are demanding a special party conference to force the issue. They won’t get one. It is the greatest abdication since Edward VIII gave up his throne for love. In Jez’s version Mrs Wallis Simpson is played by Unite’s Len McCluskey.

May might well not have survived 2018 against an opposition led by a parliamentary tactician as sharp and pro-active as Harold Wilson, a principled John Smith or even crafty Team Blair, who would have better marshalled those DUP and SNP votes and kept the unions in their box. I increasingly suspect that Labour will have a new leader by 2022, if it can find one, though I haven’t a clue yet who he or she will be. It won’t be Laura Pidcock (31), the latest Northern left-wing woman to be tipped for the job after defending Jez’s ‘stupid woman’ jibe. Stupid person. But are there any Tory wannabes in sight who can tie up their laces on live television? Boris Johnson, who has been fairly quiet over Christmas (pigging out somewhere nice, I expect) is again topping the pops for Tory activists, according to the ConHome website. This is despite – or possibly because – the Economist magazine, the printed embodiment of global elitism, voted him its Idiot of the Year, an irresponsible demagogue, not a statesman. Let’s not waste time on the plotter, he’s toast.

Amber Rudd deserves brownie points for bravely backing a second referendum, despite No.10 making it categorically clear that the boss won’t have one, a pledge which I judge less than solid if Houdini needs wriggle room. But Rudd is badly placed, politically, as a moderate in immoderate times, as well as sitting on a majority thinner than Jacob Rees-Mogg in the frontline invasion hotspot of Hastings.

Andrea Leadsom says ‘look at me’ while playing the May Deal loyalist, at least for now. As defence secretary, Gavin ‘Private Pike’ Williamson waves his wooden rifle in silly ways which must make the MoD brass squirm. He’s not going anywhere either. Which leaves us with Jeremy Hunt, a man who once said that the health portfolio would be his last job in politics, and with Javid, who said no such thing.

Both are ex-Remainers of the Jeremy Corbyn School (ie. you wouldn’t notice) who have trimmed their sails like weekend yachtsmen caught in a squall. Hunt turned out to be a perfectly safe-and-sensible health secretary who usually sounds solidly dull as foreign secretary, except when he has rushes of blood to the head. That speech where he likened EU membership to a Soviet prison caused legitimate offence to EU citizens for whom it is not a figure of speech.

Last week he invoked the Singapore model for Brexit Britain, which suggests he doesn’t know much about that highly-regulated, super-sized Isle of Wight either – or got carried away by Hollywood’s Crazy Rich Asians comedy. He’s been boning up in the glittering city-state this week. Clue: it didn’t get rich by cutting off its neighbours’ markets. Sensibly, Hunt’s been talking about Singapore’s long-term economic planning (sic) and better education, both policy options available within the EU.

Hunt is married to a Chinese woman (except when he says she’s Japanese) and Javid is famously one of five high-achieving sons of a first generation migrant from Pakistan to Bristol’s bus depot, via Rochdale. Both are now credited with saying privately that May’s original mantra – ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ – remains true and that, while they want a deal, it would be wise to step up preparations for a hard landing. That is why it’s now happening at an increased tempo on multiple fronts, ferry hirings, NHS fridges for perishable drugs and the rest.

In the past few days Javid has gone further in playing to the gallery which matters, ageing Tory activists who will eventually chose between two MP-shortlisted candidates. I felt a twinge of sympathy for the home secretary when he was ‘forced’ to cut short a family holiday in South Africa’s Kruger National Park and fly home to deal with the supposed migrant crisis in the Channel. By the time the tabloids had enviously described the £840-a-night luxury accommodation (it’s always ‘luxury’ in tabloid land) on which the ex-banker had splashed out it was even two twinges.

But only brief ones. As long as he has a mobile phone signal Javid didn’t have to come home for a bogus crisis. People smugglers with small boats bringing barely 300 asylum seekers into Britain by sea during 2018 is scarcely an invasion by Greek or Italian standards, even if numbers are rising and another 200 were picked up by the French. But no, Javid felt the need to be seen to ‘do something’ so he changed his mind under pressure to repel the Dover hordes and recalled two Border Force cutters from duty in the Med – where they are needed.

There will be more of this kind of daft photo-opportunity as Brexit Day approaches, even more if the Article 50 timetable is delayed beyond March 29 to allow 13th-hour talks to succeed (or fail), as some still predict. Populism is more about show than substance, as Donald Trump proves every day. After all, ministers are under pressure to act tough at Britain’s closest EU sea border by the very wing of their party which insists it can easily maintain an open EU land border in Ireland. In pursuit of their brutal but lucrative trade, people smugglers are highly adaptable, so Belfast’s Central Station may soon be greeting Afghans and Africans claiming to be Irish.

May’s New Year message was pitched at voters and MPs who are desperate to ‘turn a corner’, put the divisive years behind us, move forward together, start a new chapter etc., by backing her Withdrawal Agreement and getting back to pressing domestic reforms. It’s wishful thinking, of course. Negotiations on the future trade relationship during the two- (?) year transition to December 2020 will be exhausting and fraught with peril. That’s why both hard Brexiteers and hard Remainers say it’s best not to risk it when vote-less Britain will be at the EU 27’s mercy.

Even those Tories who admire May’s stubborn tenacity think she’s got her fingers in her ears and her eyes tightly shut. Either that or she’s gone mad. But their own rival route maps – from no Brexit to hard Brexit via Canada or Norway – currently look no more practical or plausible. Nor do their tactical parliamentary plans. May to offer Labour moderates a vote on a second referendum in return for their support against the no-confidence motion that Corbyn may eventually table? Oh, come off it. Such a scenario would not guarantee any particular Brexit outcome. More likely it would guarantee party splits and further instability, not the pipe dream of a reformist centre party or a British Macron (ironic laughter).

That is Submarine Theresa’s residual strength: ‘My deal or what?’ To my surprise, Liam ‘Air Miles’ Fox, the international trade secretary in waiting, is the sole survivor of the Three Brexiteers – Johnson, Davis and Fox – whom May appointed in 2016. Moreover he is surviving as an active supporter of May’s messy compromise too. So, it would appear, is Michael Gove, the cabinet’s perennial rascal-to-watch. Just as business and the City are increasingly concerned about a hard Brexit, so Fox and friends are talking up the risks of no Brexit at all.

So far as we know, the phone calls May made over Christmas did not produce festive tweaks, let alone concessions, from EU leaders, collectively or individually. Quite the opposite from the Band of Hope’s Jean Claude Juncker, who can’t help himself. Quite where he gets his cockiness as we enter 2019 I can’t imagine.

President Macron’s humiliating retreat in the face of the gilets jaunes protesters pushes the French budget deficit into the danger zone. The Corbyn-Mogg coalition in Italy’s budget battle with Brussels is unresolved. In her own New Year message, chancellor Angela Merkel defended the rules-based international order against Trumpismo, but Germans adopted a new Wagnerian word during 2018 – Merkeldammerung or ‘the twilight of Merkel’. The CDU picking her backroom protégée as Merkel’s successor does not auger well for stability. In their different predatory ways presidents Trump, Putin and Xi actively seek to undermine EU cohesion and strength. What’s not to fear?

So I don’t assume the EU will not lift a finger to rescue May’s deal from the hard Brexit default position, unless it becomes a great deal more confident than it should be on the slender evidence that British voters have edged more than tentatively towards Remain. That a decisive shift would require a major crisis – for Britain or the wider world – remains my position. Do not rule one out. The financial markets had a terrible year and good reason to fear the new one. UK retailers had a bad Christmas, jobs are plentiful, albeit not enough good ones, investor confidence is weak. The world’s trouble spots are like the world’s volcanoes, restless, and Trump’s America has become a source of instability.

Perhaps May is banking on such a crisis to rescue her after an initial ‘meaningful’ defeat in two weeks’ time – a run on sterling might do the job. Yet the hard Brexit crew are piling more chips on the table. Yes, there would be disruption, but not for long. A ‘managed’ hard Brexit could combine WTO trade terms with side deals that keep the lights on and the planes flying, some of them, they say. The economy would take a hit, but not one that could not be recouped by a Britain that was free at last.

Even ex-MP Paul Goodman, normally level-headed editor of the ConHome website, talks of the choice between ‘lapdog and bulldog’, though he has not yet called for surface-to-air missiles to tackle those Gatwick drones. But people who deal with the small print of practical realities – not airy-fairy generalisations, Boris – dismiss such talk as no-deal unicorns. Disruption to the supply side of the economy – making and selling stuff – would be rapid and dramatic. Consumers would quickly suffer shortages and higher prices. The Treasury and Bank of England would have to ease monetary and fiscal policy – all risky and expensive stuff. The EU27 would call most of the shots.

Did anyone mention data? The UK may now be only 3% of the global economy, but it handles 12% of global data flows. It would do so without the EU’s robust data protection regime. Fixing that would take time. Its not as exciting as lorry queues at Dover and people smugglers in stolen fishing boats off Calais. But even Jacob Rees-Mogg depends on it and my hunch is he’s not a techie.

Happy New Year.

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