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Opinion: Paul Francis on how government’s small boats week ended in disaster

It must have seemed a good idea at the time. But the government plan to hold a week-long series of events on how it was tackling the small boats crisis unravelled spectacularly.

The week ended with more questions about the government’s policies, leadership and the position of the Home Secretary.

Paul Francis gives his view on the latest in politics
Paul Francis gives his view on the latest in politics

Instead of highlighting how there had been a modest decline in numbers crossing the Channel, the focus and scrutiny was on the totemic figure of 100,000 – the number of people who had crossed since 2018. The dubious milestone was reached last week.

The media highlighted how 755 had crossed in a single day last week - the highest figure so far this year.

Not only did the Conservatives have to confront figures going in the wrong direction, but the party then faced awkward questions about its flagship policy to detain would-be asylum seekers on barges.

It emerged traces of the Legionella bug were discovered on the first floating large ferry that was to accommodate the first few hundred people.

The week was completed with the news that six people had lost their lives after the small boats they were in capsized in the Channel.

It was a harsh reminder not just of the risks people take to get to the UK, but the tragic costs when they fail.

Border Force teams in the English Channel. Picture: PA
Border Force teams in the English Channel. Picture: PA

It was a humanitarian crisis that (rightly) forced the politicians to moderate their tone.

It certainly got a lot of newspaper headlines, if not quite in the way the Conservative government hoped when it came up with the tagline ‘small boats week’.

While the debate has in some ways taken off again, its trajectory has led to more questions about the government’s approach.

Among the issues raised is the creation of safe routes for refugees; around which there is a broad consensus.

Politically, the stakes are high: the Conservatives want us to see them as tough on asylum and immigration and the most effective way for that to happen is to curb the boats crossing the Channel.

But with an election possible next spring, time is running out. For Kent’s Conservative MPs, especially those covering coastal towns, the clock is ticking: they need hard evidence that the party has made the right calls.

And so far, the jury is out.

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