Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

The Tories are blaming everyone but themselves over the refugee crisis

‘Ministers are still fighting like rats in a sack,’ one Whitehall source said. ‘There is no overall plan; they are competing for headlines’

Andrew Grice
Wednesday 16 March 2022 15:02 GMT
The problems are not only Priti Patel’s fault
The problems are not only Priti Patel’s fault (UK Parliament/AFP/Getty)

The public’s remarkable response to the scheme to take Ukrainian refugees into their homes, with more than 120,000 people registering on the Homes for Ukraine website, shows how out of touch the government was in its slow, grudging reaction to the migration crisis.

A blame game is now underway inside the government. Ministers blame civil servants, notably at the Home Office, while officials rightly reply that the culture is set at the top by the politicians. In fact, both groups should have prepared for this emergency, since the US and UK had been warning them for weeks that Russia planned to invade Ukraine.

Priti Patel’s initial response was poor and reflected the “keep them out” mindset of the Brexiteers, which translated on Ukraine into “keep the numbers down” – harsh and totally wrong in a war.

Some Tory MPs believe ministers suspect the generous public mood in the heat of the Ukraine battle might not last, and that they fear Boris Johnson’s strategy of never being outflanked on the right might be in danger. Indeed, Nigel Farage is back on the scene; he never really went away. Although he is focusing on net zero and fracking for now, he could easily reissue his immigration hit. A study by the centre-right Onward think tank found that a “Faragist Newkip” party could potentially cost the Tories 53 seats at the next election, wiping out their majority.

The problems are not only Patel’s fault. When the home secretary tried to correct her mistake and allow many more Ukrainians in through a new humanitarian route, allies say her plan was vetoed by Steve Barclay, the new Downing Street chief of staff. Whitehall insiders tell me there is chaos behind the scenes – hardly the reset moment Johnson wanted from his new No 10 team as he tried to draw a line under Partygate.

While his Tory critics will not try to push Johnson out during the Ukraine crisis, they are not dead, merely sleeping. So his machine needs to perform better if he is to prevent a return to domestic hostilities when the real fighting stops.

“Ministers are still fighting like rats in a sack,” one Whitehall source said. “There is no overall plan; they are competing for headlines.” Michael Gove, the levelling up secretary, was handed control of the Homes for Ukraine scheme, a sign of Johnson’s frustration with Patel.

Her allies insist she has suffered from the same under-performance from officials which cost previous home secretaries Amber Rudd and Charles Clarke their jobs. “The Home Office has got form on this, it has developed a habit of saying what it shouldn’t, couldn’t and won’t do rather than finding quick solutions to problems,” said Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader.

Yet Patel has form too. She kept her job even though she was found to have broken the ministerial code by bullying staff. When she was floundering over migrants crossing the Channel in small boats last year, she invoked the words of another predecessor, John Reid, to describe her department as “not fit for purpose”.

To keep up to speed with all the latest opinions and comment, sign up to our free weekly Voices Dispatches newsletter by clicking here

True, there are institutional problems at an inflexible Home Office, where the “we always do it this way” mentality delayed the recognition that a different approach was needed on Ukraine. Yet the buck should stop with the politicians. The default position for ministers is to blame the civil service “blob”.

Incredibly, they somehow still manage to blame today’s problems on the last Labour government. Gove claimed that Labour invented the “hostile environment” strategy on illegal immigration; yes, the words were uttered in 2007, but it was the Tories who embraced them as a culture. The department responsible for both crime and immigration instinctively regards migrants as criminals; sadly, that will be entrenched by the Nationality and Borders Bill.

Johnson blames the looming energy crisis on Labour’s failure to invest in nuclear power. Today, Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, blamed an obstructive House of Lords for the years-long delay in bringing in legislation making it easier to sanction oligarchs. Yet it was ministers who repeatedly delayed an Economic Crime Bill. The Intelligence and Security Committee told Johnson “urgent action” was needed over Russian money more than two years ago. It has become law now only because of the war.

After almost 12 years in power, it’s about time Tory ministers start to accept some responsibility, not least for their own legacy of 10 years of austerity – clearly one factor in an overstretched, under-resourced Home Office machine.

Johnson, after nearly three years in office, can no longer get away with the trick of claiming his administration is “new”. He lost valuable public goodwill during Partygate, probably forever. So there will be a ceiling on his wartime recovery in the opinion polls.  And one day, the voters will surely tire of hearing the Tories blame someone else.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in