Boris Johnson has been warned the migrant crisis could “destroy” the Conservative Party, as a Telegraph poll showed the overwhelming majority of Tory voters believe the Government’s approach to Channel crossings is “too soft”.
On Saturday, a prominent party donor declared ministers must do “far more” to tackle the problem, warning that immigration is “going to destroy us and there is going to be a [Nigel] Farage-style party”.
The Telegraph can reveal Mr Johnson’s own MPs erupted in anger over the issue when he appeared at the powerful backbench 1922 committee last week.
The donor, who asked to remain anonymous, accused Mr Johnson of mirroring David Cameron’s drift to the centre during the Coalition administration, branding the situation “catastrophic”.
“When you move to the centre, you open up a gap in your right flank and somebody comes in and sets up there. You can’t get a majority there,” the donor said.
Mr Johnson is also facing wider criticism coming from his own ministers, including those usually seen as loyalists.
One Cabinet minister last week privately expressed complete disagreement with the Government’s economic policy. Another minister told The Telegraph that the Government was “shot” and entirely bereft of ideas. A third said that it was like “a dead man walking” and that the Tories would probably only recover after a period in opposition.
This newspaper can also reveal concern among ministers that freeports – a key plank of the Government’s post-Brexit strategy – have been watered down by Treasury mandarins. Mr Johnson has also been forced to shelve his dream for a bridge or tunnel connecting Northern Ireland with Scotland, after a review found it would be too expensive and technically challenging.
More than 24,500 migrants have reached the UK already in 2021, nearly treble the total for last year. This month alone, arrivals have reached 5,000 – the highest monthly figure ever, despite the colder temperatures and dangerous conditions at sea.
Groups of children and adults, some wrapped in blankets, were pictured arriving in Kent on Saturday after crossing the channel.
‘If we’re 10 points behind next year, then there’s the problem’
New polling for this newspaper showed that 55 per cent of the public and 77 per cent of voters who backed the Tories at the last election believe the Government’s approach to managing Channel crossings is “too soft”.
Migration was also the performance area in which Mr Johnson received the worst negative ratings from voters, with 54 per cent disapproving and just 21 per cent approving, according to the online survey by Redfield and Wilton Strategies.
Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, also faces pressure over her role in combating the crisis, with 53 per cent disapproving of her performance in tackling Channel crossings and just 19 per cent approving.
Senior Tories see the party’s performance in next May’s council elections – six months from now – as a litmus test of Mr Johnson’s ability to restore the poll ratings for which many voted for him as leader.
Discussing the prospect of an attempt to unseat Mr Johnson, a former Cabinet minister said: “He’s used up an awful lot of capital but he hasn’t gone into deficit yet. If we’re 10 points behind next year, then there’s the problem.”
Another ex-frontbencher cautioned that migration was hurting the party worse in the polls than the recent sleaze scandal. “If we don’t deliver on migration, this is really damaging to us,” they said.
“People are genuinely fed up with this. So I think you can be pretty tough. That will mean that we will end up in the courts, but the Government has got to fight this.”
Right-wing activists are already “getting organised” in seats in which they could cause damage to the Conservatives, reported one MP, adding that the Tory party only clung on in some areas at the last election because the Brexit Party “stood away in all the key seats for the most part.”
James Frayne, an influential pollster, also echoed warnings that the Conservatives are now “seriously vulnerable” to a new political party emerging from the right, due to “perceived failings on fiscal policy and asylum and immigration”.
Writing for The Telegraph, he said: “For the first time, small boats were brought up in a focus group of working-class voters in Long Eaton a couple of weeks ago. This was before recent coverage of record numbers arriving. I expect this to be a more significant feature of the groups I run this week.”
Frustration grows over Channel crossings
A series of livid MPs confronted Mr Johnson over the Channel crossings at a meeting of the 1922 committee on Thursday night. Sources in the room said Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative leader, was the first to challenge Mr Johnson, saying: “Migration was in our manifesto, it was in our DNA. If we don’t do it, they won’t forgive us.”
His intervention prompted dozens of MPs to bang their hands on the desks and walls of the committee room – the traditional display of support in 1922 meetings . At least three other MPs are said to have expressed similar concerns.
The Prime Minister was told that the Government’s forthcoming Nationality and Borders Bill – heralded by ministers as a flagship set of measures – would be insufficient to stem the flow of illegal migration across the Channel.
He told the MPs the issue was “driving him mad” and asked if they would support a policy of sending asylum seekers abroad for offshore processing.
Mr Johnson’s decision to draft in Steve Barclay, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, to review policy options and oversee cross-departmental collaboration has done little to assuage Tory nerves.
One Tory MP said: “It’s all very well putting Steve Barclay on it. What’s he going to find out? That they need to get on with the bloody thing. The Prime Minister should be backing up his Home Secretary. She’s come up with options.”
On Friday afternoon, Mr Johnson spoke with the President of Ghana and the pair “welcomed the opportunity for further cooperation on a range of issues”, according to Downing Street.
In August, it emerged that British and Ghanaian ministers had discussed “third country asylum partnerships as the UK makes plans to reform its asylum system and tackle illegal migration”, according to a hastily deleted tweet posted by Ghana’s foreign ministry.
Whitehall sources last night confirmed that Britain was in talks with other countries about offshoring processing, but played down the suggestion of a potential partnership between London and Accra.
A government source said the Prime Minister understood the growing frustration and shared it, but had introduced tough legislation around illegal migrants and heavy sentences for people traffickers.
Immigration is said to have dominated the agenda in Downing Street more than any other issue bar Covid since Mr Johnson entered No 10. He has told allies he is committed to pursuing all possible solutions.
Pressure from MPs is growing, however. Adam Holloway, a Conservative member of the Commons home affairs committee and MP for Gravesham, in Kent, said a key issue was that the courts “will let people stay, even though most of them are the relatively wealthy people…most are economic migrants”.
The issue is beleaguering MPs far beyond the east coast of England, where the small boats are arriving. David Jones, the former Brexit minister, said that even though he represents a seat in north Wales not directly impacted by Channel crossings, it is “the biggest political issue in my correspondence”.
He called for legislation to “neutralise” the Human Rights Act in order to allow the Government to take tougher action, but said he believes Mr Johnson “understands just what an important political issue this is”.