British Navy to deter Channel migrants as part of Boris Johnson's fightback

PM hopes to win back public support after lockdown party saga by tackling illegal immigration

A man carries a young child after being rescued by a lifeboat in the Channel. PA
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Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson is to take full personal “ownership” of the political crisis over migrants crossing the English Channel in an attempt to bolster his weakened leadership after the “partygate” scandal.

Mr Johnson is fighting to save his position after revelations about a string of parties in Downing Street during lockdowns seriously damaged his standing.

Draft plans have been drawn up to help him repair his reputation if he is not forced to stand down over the events, which are subject to an inquiry.

One of the ways he is hoping to win back public support is by taking control of the illegal immigration issue from Home Secretary Priti Patel, according to multiple reports.

An idea being considered is to put the military in charge of stemming the numbers of illegal migrants crossing the Channel and using controversial “pushback” tactics to turn away boats at sea.

Called 'Operation Red Meat', it is aimed at wooing back voters with populist policies after the “partygate” scandal.

The Armed Forces will be able to deploy Naval ships, boats and sophisticated surveillance technology to bolster the Border Force, which is limited to just five cutters.

The Navy will step in if Border Force officers go on strike or refuse to use the pushback tactics, where jet skis block and redirect migrants’ boats back towards France.

A group of people thought to be migrants are brought in to Dungeness, Kent. PA

Ms Patel’s efforts to stamp out the unlawful voyages have been criticised by both those in favour of tougher measures and those concerned about human rights.

Her plan to order Border Force officials to push back boats carrying migrants has been heavily opposed by campaigners and human rights groups.

Border Force officials threatened to go on strike if the controversial tactic was introduced.

But many supporters of the Conservative Party say the government is not doing enough to stem the flow of small boats reaching British shores.

On Monday Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi was questioned about the reported plans, and defended the military approach to illegal immigration.

Speaking to Sky News, he argued it would be a good idea for the prime minister to take personal control of the crisis, saying a single command in control was the best strategy to tackle the problem.

He said it would be a “much better way of dealing with illegal migration” and insisted the Navy would “behave responsibly” if and when boats are intercepted.

He also reiterated the government’s plan to go after people smugglers, saying they are working with French authorities to catch the culprits.

Recalling the drowning of 27 migrants off the coast of France in November, the education minister said it was “horrific to see what happened” to the victims.

“It is a good idea that there is a single command and control, and that includes not just naval vessels but all other vessels including Border Force, so that you actually have a coordinated operation in terms of the small boats,” Mr Zahawi said.

“A really important idea is the legislation that Priti Patel has put through Parliament to allow us to have a much better way of dealing with illegal migration because there are legal routes for migration, you know, I’m the son of immigrants.”

He said the ministers wanted to “go after the illegal smugglers who are putting these people’s lives at risk”.

But when told those were not the ones on the boats, he added: “Well, they’re the ones we want.”

Following months of record migrant figures last year, a poll in November showed 77 per cent of Tory voters believed the party had become “too soft” on the issue.

A total of 28,401 people crossed from France to Britain in 2021, according to figures from Migration Watch. This was more than three times the overall figure from the previous year.

If Mr Johnson is not found to have broken the Ministerial Code in the “partygate” saga and manages to cling on to power despite growing calls for him to step down, it could signal a new era in Britain’s response to illegal migration.

In her inquiry, senior civil servant Sue Gray is responsible for establishing what parties have taken place in Downing Street since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and if they breached coronavirus restrictions.

Critics have argued the probe is not independent as Ms Gray reports to the prime minister.

Her report aims to establish the facts, but it will be for the police to punish any lockdown breaches and for Lord Geidt, the prime minister’s adviser on ministerial interests, to look at any breaking of the Code.

On Saturday, the steady stream of dinghies continued across the busy shipping lanes of the English Channel, despite the death of a man trying to cross from France the previous day.

Photos showed two boats arriving in Kent, each carrying around 30 people, including children, in the early hours.

One boat was brought into the port of Dover while the second group were brought ashore at Dungeness.

Some people were seen receiving medical treatment after reaching land.

Both boats were intercepted by the RNLI lifeboat charity in pitch-black conditions.

On Friday, a Sudanese man in his 20s was found unconscious and pulled from the water after falling off a dingy. The vessel had been packed with fellow migrants bound for the UK, French authorities said.

Thirty-two people on board were rescued off the coast of Berck, near Calais, in a state of hypothermia, authorities said.

The man was taken back to shore but declared dead, and a manslaughter investigation has been opened, the Boulogne-sur-Mer prosecutor said.

Updated: January 17, 2022, 12:09 PM