“The small boat migrants are causing my voters more grief than sleaze, rail in the north and social care,” one of the many disgruntled Conservative MPs told me. I was surprised: he doesn’t represent a seat on the south coast, but in Yorkshire.
Even before the tragedy in which 17 men, seven women and three children lost their lives, the crisis in the Channel was a political one for Boris Johnson. Focus groups and polling for the Tories shows the issue has risen sharply up the list of people’s concerns. Although the UK has fewer applications for asylum than Germany, Spain, France and Greece, the small boats are highly visible – on news bulletins and now the front pages – unlike previous routes such as migrants hiding in lorries.
The issue is toxic for Johnson, and not merely because he has broken his key pledge in the 2016 Brexit referendum to “take back control” of UK borders. He has compounded his problem by over-promising and under-delivering (again). Last week he told newbie Tory MPs at a No 10 reception he would “stop the boats”.
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