Cooper: ‘Headline-chasing’ move to deploy navy in refugee crisis won’t work

© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Labour’s Yvette Cooper has described news that the government could deploy the military to prevent refugees crossing the English Channel as an attempt to “distract” from the outrage sparked by Covid rule-breaking parties in Downing Street.

Responding to reports that the Royal Navy is set to take charge of operations looking to stop people crossing the Channel within weeks, the Shadow Home Secretary stressed that its past deployment in the crisis has proved unsuccessful.

“The government has failed to do the serious, practical work with France that is needed to stop lives being lost and criminal gangs profiting from dangerous Channel crossings,” Cooper said this morning.

“Instead, this looks like Boris Johnson is using the situation to chase headlines to distract from the total mess he is in as a result of rule-breaking parties in No 10.”

According to The Times, military involvement in the Channel is one of a number of announcements expected this week in an effort, dubbed ‘operation red meat’, to placate backbenchers. Other policies include a freeze to the BBC licence fee, tackling the NHS operations backlog and the lifting of Covid restrictions.

“The government brought the navy in to patrol the Channel three years ago in 2019. HMS Enterprise and HMS Mersey did not intercept a single boat and the cost to the Home Office was £780,000,” the Shadow Home Secretary continued.

“They need to explain what is different in these latest plans. They’ve announced pushbacks that they’ve now admitted won’t work and keep re-announcing offshore processing even though no other country has agreed to it and it was incredibly costly and damaging when tried in Australia.

“Time and again they have gone for headlines rather than hard work to tackle this serious issue. The Prime Minister should say whether this latest briefing means he has lost confidence in the Home Secretary and the Border Force or whether this is really about the crisis of confidence in him.”

Johnson has come under pressure in recent weeks as reports of numerous parties being held in Downing Street and other government buildings throughout the pandemic, including at the height of lockdown in 2020, have emerged.

Letters are reportedly being submitted to the 1922 committee by Tory MPs – letters from 15% would trigger a Conservative leadership contest, and potential candidates Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are said to be courting colleagues.

“Sending the navy after people making the perilous Channel crossing is part of a last-ditch effort to try and salvage Boris Johnson’s ruined career and deflect public anger away from systemic corruption and rule-breaking within his party and government,” Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy told LabourList this afternoon.

The former shadow minister for immigration added: “As long as they can save their own skin, the Tories are perfectly happy to ramp up attacks on refugees and see more people drowned at sea.”

According to the BBC, discussions over the armed forces working with the Home Office have been taking place for weeks, but defence select committee chair and Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood criticised the government plan to deploy the Royal Navy as “rushed” and described it as a “massive distraction” for the navy.

The Home Office said more than 270 people had crossed in 10 small boats on Thursday last week. At least 27 people died after their boat sank in November, in the largest single loss of life in the Channel since records began in 2014.

Nick Thomas-Symonds told MPs later that month that Priti Patel had “lost control” of the English Channel refugee crisis after Downing Street brought in Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay to oversee a cross-Whitehall review.

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