The Dorset prison barge that isn’t – another cunning government plan

What’s really not clear is whether ministers want, or don’t want, people to think it’s for incarceration of asylum seekers

Tom Peck
Thursday 06 April 2023 17:28 BST
Drone footage shows Dorset barge set to house 500 asylum seekers

A pity, really, that there was no fly on the wall inside the home office meeting where it was decided that the way to deter people from risking their lives by boarding overcrowded and dangerous small boats would be to threaten them with free private accommodation upon a very large boat, safely moored up in one of the most beautiful parts of the UK.

Maybe there was a fly on the wall when it began, but it will certainly not have been long before it buzzed off in search of more intelligent conversation.

Within hours of confirming that a big boat just off the Dorset coast is going to house up to 500 of the around 4,000 asylum seekers that have arrived in small boats so far this year (and 40,000 last year) and thus confirming the policy to be pointless, very junior government ministers have had to go on the television and explain that the boat in Dorset definitely isn’t a prison. It just looks like one.

The Tories had their very best man on it. Richard Holden MP is unknown outside Westminster, but vaguely known within it for being the maverick genius behind the Keir Starmer Drank A Beer Campaign; a campaign which very unsurprisingly turned out to be complete bollocks, but quite possibly delayed Boris Johnson’s resignation by as much as two weeks, for which he has been rewarded with an extremely junior government job.

It is only on about the tenth viewing of Mr Holden’s two-minute interview with Kay Burley that any of it even begins to make sense. When a policy has no purpose beyond pointless cruelty, it’s very hard to work out whether a politician is meant to be looking awkward or relieved when its cruelty and pointlessness are pointed out to him.

Burley repeatedly asks him whether the new floating asylum barge is a prison, and he repeatedly says no, but at the same time is seeking to reassure viewers that, you know, don’t worry, it is like a prison.

What’s really not clear is whether the government wants or doesn’t want people to think it’s a prison, which would disgust and delight different people in equal measure.

Whenever it is pointed out to the government that the illegal immigration bill is practically pointless, and consists of absolutely nothing beyond bold cruel stunts, like deporting a few hundred people to Rwanda by way of dealing with an asylum backlog of more than 118,000, it (by which we mean Suella Braverman) likes to claim that it is not about the actual numbers. It is instead about being a “deterrent”. And then, with her next breath, she explains how Rwanda is a great place to live. A thriving country with a growing economy, that absolutely anyone should count themselves lucky to be deported to.

The prison barge, naturally, is much the same.

The reason there are pictures of this barge on the front pages of the newspapers is because the government imagines it will make itself more popular through public acts of cruelty towards people they believe the public considers to be lower forms of human beings.

There have also been concerns expressed by locals that the barge dwellers may “escape”, and have the temerity to attempt to use services within the local community. Which means that Mr Holden finds himself having to reassure viewers that that won’t happen, by boasting about the range of onboard facilities on his brand-new boat that’s meant to be a deterrent, like an especially dim Apprentice candidate who’s two minutes away from his terminal trip to the boardroom.

There’ll be a doctor “on site” he says, midway through an explanation of why it is that these lucky passengers will simply have no need to ever set foot on shore, which is sadly interrupted before he can list the full range of duty-free shops and dining options.

The idea, apparently, is that asylum seekers will be free to come and go from the ship itself, but won’t be able to get out of the port area itself. So xenophobic locals can stop worrying right away.

Look, we’ve no doubt all this has been very deeply thought through. And that there’s definitely no way that a load of people who have already made it halfway across Europe in the backs of cars and lorries and then across the channel on a dinghy might somehow be resourceful enough to find a way out from a permanently moored boat from which they’re free to come and go.

All this stuff is the result of carefully considered, results-focused policy making. It definitely has nothing to do with a desperate urge to get a big photo of a horrible-looking boat out on to the news channels in lieu of an actual solution to a problem they’ve spent 13 years making worse and worse and worse, and about which they’ve got absolutely no idea what to do.

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