The UK confirmed its plan to use the military to limit small boat crossings from France, one of several measures seen as an effort to shore up support for the prime minister amid a series of scandals.
Boris Johnson's government has confirmed reports that it is planning to involve the military in operations in the English Channel to try to limit the number of migrant crossings in small boats.
The move is being reported as one of several populist measures designed to shore up support for the beleaguered prime minister, whose political survival is in the balance following a series of scandals over parties held by his staff during pandemic lockdowns.
In what has been unofficially dubbed "Operation Red Meat", several policy projects have been mooted that are seen as an attempt to appeal to ruling Conservative politicians and party supporters — and divert attention from questions surrounding Johnson's leadership.
Home Secretary (interior minister) Priti Patel told the House of Commons on Monday that she had commissioned the Ministry of Defence as a "crucial operational partner" in protecting the Channel against illegal immigration. More details would be given later, she added.
The Ministry of Defence told Euronews it was expected that efforts in the immediate term would remain focused on understanding what could be done to make the system more effective and efficient, whilst assuring people do not drown in the Channel.
"Unacceptable numbers of people continue to make the dangerous Channel crossings and last November’s tragic deaths serve as the strongest reminder of the need to stop them. The Government is exploring every avenue to prevent further crossings and detail of how that can be achieved will be made known in due course," a spokesman said.
The Labour opposition has accused the government of learning nothing from a previous operation in 2019, when the navy was brought in to patrol the Channel but was withdrawn after six weeks, having made no interceptions in an experiment that cost £780,000 (€933,000).
"I think the British public will also support the government that we should do everything possible to protect our borders and that is why a blended approach is absolutely vital," was Priti Patel's response in the Commons.
There has also been criticism from Conservative ranks. Tobias Ellwood, Chair of the House of Commons Defence Committee, told Sky News the plan was a "massive distraction, that isn’t what the Navy should be doing". He tweeted that he would be asking more questions in parliament.
The government's plan was backed by Education Minister Nadhim Zahawi. "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 co-ordinated operation in terms of the small boats," he told Sky.
Reports in UK media have said the Royal Navy is set to be given control of operations in the Channel to tackle the migrant problem, with discussions involving the government and the UK Border Force.
According to The Times, the government is considering plans to send migrants to countries such as Ghana and Rwanda for processing and resettlement.
Figures released early in the new year suggested the number of migrants crossing the Channel in small boats more than trebled in 2021.
The autumn saw an escalating row between the British and French governments — which reached a new intensity in November when at least 27 people died after their boat sank off the French coast, a tragedy which prompted French President Emmanuel Macron to appeal for more European cooperation to prevent illegal immigration.
Among the other reported policy moves the British government hopes will detract from criticism of the prime minister, are plans to lift COVID restrictions, and freeze and eventually cut the BBC licence fee.
Scottish National Party (SNP) spokesman Stuart McDonald told Priti Patel in the Commons that she had been "sent out to the despatch box to further Operation Red Meat, because the proposals leaked out over the weekend have absolutely nothing to do with saving lives, everything to do with saving the prime minister’s career and her own political career".
Recent weeks have brought revelations of a catalogue of alleged lockdown-breaching gatherings among Boris Johnson's advisers, that are threatening to topple the British prime minister. Opinion polls suggest public support for his leadership has plunged and some Conservative politicians have added their voices to calls for him to resign.
On Friday Johnson's office apologised to the royal family for holding staff parties in Downing Street on the eve of Prince Philip's funeral last year.