The Conservative Party will indulge me if I second-guess its chief election strategist’s most heartfelt desire, and begin with an advertisement on Lynton Crosby’s behalf.
“Wanted: a boatload of sick refugees from a Muslim country, to drift into the North Sea early next April, with a view to remaining in international waters for several weeks while being refused a) food and medical treatment; and b) permission to enter British waters, while the Prime Minister tries to clinch a general election victory by declaiming that Britain, and Britain alone, will decide who can and cannot come to this country.”
Fans of Australian politics (and which of us isn’t?) will recall the template for this scenario from August 2001, when John Howard, the repugnant Prime Minister, manipulated the plight of 438 hungry and sick refugees, primarily Afghan, trapped on a distressed fishing vessel.
When a Norwegian ship, the Tampa, rescued them, its captain requested permission to enter Australian waters and deposit the migrants on the Australian territory of Christmas Island. Rather than send teams to feed and treat the famished and ill, Howard dispatched commandos to board the ship and prevent it from reaching safe port. His Liberal Party had been heading for defeat in the forthcoming federal election. He made the Tampa Affair the cornerstone of his campaign, and won handsomely.
Although Mr Crosby performed the same role for Howard that he now executes for David Cameron, he says he wasn’t involved in the decision to invade the boat.
What one may safely observe is that an article bearing Mr Cameron’s byline in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph – We’re Building An Immigration System That Puts Britain First – had a poignant echo of Howard’s 2001 statement that “We decide who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come”.
Mr Cameron (or whoever ghosts such pieces) wrote that “our goal is clear: an immigration system that puts Britain first.” The pedant would point out that the system that puts Britain first is one that welcomes the work-motivated visitors who represent such a large net win for the Exchequer.
The immigration system which puts Conservative electoral prospects first, on the other hand, is the phantasmal one predicated on Mr Cameron’s depiction of migrants, from the EU and beyond, as spongers flooding into Britain to cadge off the welfare state and NHS.
Hence his promise to tighten border controls, introduce a “deport first, appeal later” policy, lengthen the time required for immigrants to qualify for benefits and shorten the time they are entitled to receive them (seemingly a ploy to pick a fight with EU legislation), and disregard the European Convention of Human Rights’ article which protects the right to a family life.
Yesterday found the PM butchly reworking that oft-quoted Liam Neeson threat from Taken. “We will find you,” he addressed himself to the illegal immigrants in Britain, perhaps toying with adding “…and we WILL. KILL. YOU”, before wimping out and going with “and make sure you are sent back to the country you came from.” Nasty, stupid and vulgar. Purest Crosby.
However depressing the vision of a once relatively civilised Tory descending into such brutishness, this is good politics. Assuaging the paranoid fears and courting the xenophobia of those who dislike foreigners is about as crude an anti-Ukip ploy as there could be, and will pay a dividend at the polls.
If Mr Cameron cannot win cleanly, he has clearly prepared to win ugly. A chilling internal voice warns about an oncoming storm of stories about pitiable dark-skinned people – not necessarily stranded at sea with dysentery, though the iconography of Royal Navy vessels escorting them towards Holland or Norway might be a priceless electoral asset – being refused entry.
In a cute accident of timing, yesterday also unearthed a survey, “As Others See Us”, canvassing opinions about Britain from some 5,000 young adults (from China, the US, India, Germany and Brazil). Among the less engaging national characteristics they identified was intolerance towards people from other lands. A similar proportion of about one in five regards us as too nationalistic.
Mr Cameron would dismiss this as a misrepresentation. He would tell you, in fact, that tolerance is one of those core British qualities he wants taught in every school. He may even sincerely believe it. You cannot overstate the electioneering politician’s capacity for doublethink.
Yet there must be a part of him – the better part of him – that guiltily recoils from the transaction as he sells the remnants of his compassionate Conservative soul to vicious sledgehammer campaigning.
The Britain the PM aims to put first with his immigration system may be the Britain of those he needs to entice back into the fold from Ukip. But it certainly isn’t my Britain, and I have a hunch that it isn’t his either.