Tuesday briefing: 43 ways the Conservatives have tried (and failed) to tackle Channel crossings


Good morning. Later today, Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman will unveil a bold new plan to deal with the small boats crisis, and just like all the bold new plans that came before it, this is the one that’s going to solve the problem once and for all.

Sunak’s proposals – key elements of which were announced in December – involve legislation that will mean that anyone who arrives in the UK via an irregular route will be banned from seeking asylum. That’s a version of the same distinction instituted by the Nationality and Borders Act last year, and the small boats have not stopped.

Another familiar note: barring as-yet unannounced features that have found some ingenious way to circumvent the existing framework, and quite apart from whether they’re humane, experts in asylum law simply don’t think the proposals are workable.

No matter, this morning’s Daily Mail’s front page suggests the government thinks: “We will push human rights law to its limit”. Sunak appears determined to proceed – and he is betting his future on persuading the public that if his plan does fail, it is not his fault but that of archaic institutions that will not let him do as he wants.

When assessing responsibility, then, it’s useful to have a form guide to hand. Today’s newsletter is a look at some of the many other fixes the government has promised since the crisis blew up at the end of 2018, and it may not fill you with optimism. Here are the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Climate crisis | More than 1,000 “super-emitter” sites gushed the potent greenhouse gas methane into the global atmosphere in 2022, the Guardian can reveal, mostly from oil and gas facilities. The worst single leak spewed methane – which causes 25% of global heating today – at a rate equivalent to 67m running cars.

  2. Crime | Sarah Everard’s life “could have been saved” if police had acted on reports of Wayne Couzens exposing himself, one of his victims has said. Couzens was sentenced to 19 months in prison yesterday for indecently exposing himself at women in the months before he murdered Everard.

  3. China | The US and China are heading towards inevitable conflict if Washington does not change its approach, China’s new foreign minister has said, in a fiery press conference in which he defended his country’s relationship with Russia. Qin Gang accused the US of a “zero-sum game where you die and I live”.

  4. Labour | Senior Conservatives have launched a bid to stymie Labour’s “unprecedented” hiring of outgoing civil servant Sue Gray, amid claims the rules for departing senior officials had been breached. Keir Starmer refused several times on Monday to say when he first approached Gray about the role.

  5. UK news | Families and friends have expressed anger that it took up to 46 hours to find five people in the wreckage of a car crash that left three of them dead and two seriously injured. After the group did not return home from a Friday night out in Newport, South Wales, the car was found shortly after midnight on Monday.

Migrants are helped by a RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) lifeboat on the south-east coast of England in 2021. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

From using the navy to threatening asylum seekers with detention in Moldova to sending jetskis on patrol, the Conservatives haven’t been short of schemes to deter those who plan to cross the Channel since the crisis erupted in the last weeks of 2018.

2019: 1,843 people arrive by small boat crossings

January: Deploy more Border Force ships, work with France

The home secretary, Sajid Javid, promises two extra Border Force cutters to patrol the Channel, bringing the total to five. On a visit to Dover, Javid says: “If you do somehow make it to the UK, we will do everything we can to make sure that you are often not successful.” This will become familiar. Meanwhile, France and the UK agree a coordinated plan to reduce crossings with more French surveillance and security on the coastline. This will also become familiar.

August: Work with France, warn people making the crossing: ‘We will send you back’

Boris Johnson tells those attempting to cross: “We will send you back … If you come illegally, you are an illegal migrant.” Meanwhile, the new home secretary, Priti Patel, holds new talks with her French counterpart.

2020: 8,466 people arrive by small boat crossings

July: Work with France, invest more in border security, create new ‘intelligence cell’

Priti Patel meets with the French interior minister, Gérald Darmanin; the pair “reaffirm their shared commitment to returning boats in the Channel to France”. They announce a new “joint intelligence cell which will crack down on the gangs”. A £705m investment in borders ahead of Brexit is announced, including new money for security.

August: Use the navy to force migrant boats back, appoint a new ‘clandestine Channel threat commander’

Patel tells MPs she intends to use the navy to block crossings before boats can enter British waters. A defence official calls the idea “completely potty”, a view it retains 18 months later. She also appoints Dan O’Mahoney as clandestine Channel threat commander, tasking him with making France strengthen enforcement measures.

September: House asylum seekers in barracks, patrol on jet skis, send asylum seekers to Moldova or Papua New Guinea

The local MP Damian Collins reveals that people who have made the crossing will be housed in a former barracks near Folkestone in Kent. Meanwhile, the Home Office sets out plans to buy two jet skis to help with patrols (£). The former Border Force head Tony Smith warns that such plans are “highly dangerous”.

Later in September, the Guardian reveals that plans are under consideration to send asylum seekers to third countries for processing, with options including Moldova, Morocco, and Papua New Guinea. This eventually becomes the Rwanda plan. The Home Office is already warning of the “significant” legal, diplomatic and practical obstacles to the idea.

October: Be ‘firm and fair’, stop ‘endless legal claims’

In her party conference speech, Priti Patel says she will make it harder to appeal asylum decisions and “expedite the removal of those who have no legitimate claim for protection”. She bemoans “decades of inaction by successive governments”.

November: Prosecute asylum seekers for steering dinghies, work with France

It emerges that new CPS guidance allows asylum seekers to be prosecuted for steering dinghies as they make the crossing even if they have no links to organised crime groups. Campaigners criticise the government for describing those steering the boats with no financial benefit as “people smugglers”. Meanwhile, the UK and France sign a new agreement, agree to double French police patrols on the coastline, and promise to make the crossing unviable.

December: Facebook ads to warn would-be migrants against making the crossing, deny entry to anyone passing through safe third country

O’Mahoney announces a “social media blitz” of ads geo-targeted on the French coastline that will warn people they risk prosecution for steering boats. He says the government is “determined to make this route completely unviable”. It later emerges that three months’ worth of ads cost £90,000. Meanwhile, immigration rules are quietly changed to bar anyone who has travelled through a safe third country – like France – from claiming asylum. There are immediate warnings that this is against international law, and enforced returns have since fallen.

2021: 28,526 people arrive by small boat crossings

Migrants, picked up at sea attempting to cross the English Channel, are helped ashore from an RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) lifeboat at Dungeness on the southeast coast of England on March 15, 2022.
Migrants, picked up at sea attempting to cross the English Channel, are helped ashore from an RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) lifeboat at Dungeness on the southeast coast of England on March 15, 2022. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

March: Reduce rights for those crossing the Channel

Details of a consultation on Priti Patel’s immigration plan reveal that those deemed to have arrived in the UK illegally will not have the same rights as those taking legal routes (of which there are very few for the vast majority of potential asylum seekers). Patel also proposes to speed up removals.

June: Ban social media posts ‘glamourising’ crossings

Patel tells social media companies they will face heavy fines if they do not remove clips that “promote and even glamourise these lethal crossings”. No fines have yet been levied.

July: Offshore centres for asylum seekers, new criminal charges, block visas for countries refusing to take back asylum seekers, bone scanners to detect age of asylum applicants, work with France

After the consultation, Patel introduces the nationality and borders bill and sets out a batch of measures that she calls the “biggest overhaul of the UK’s asylum system in decades”. Later that month, she agrees another £55m to fund French border patrols.

August: Publish a new advice website

The Home Office is censured for producing an “unethical website” that gives asylum seekers advice such as “It is safer and easier to apply for asylum in the country you’re in now” – without making it clear that the government is behind it.

November: New policy review, work with France, annoy France

As the bill makes its way through parliament, an “exasperated” Boris Johnson orders a new review to find novel ways of cutting the number of crossings. Meanwhile, France warns it will not be a “punchbag” for British politicians. But France and the UK agree to pursue an exciting new strategy to “prevent 100% of crossings”. Then the UK publishes a five-point plan for talks on Twitter instead of communicating privately with France, and Priti Patel is disinvited from further talks.

December: Make asylum seekers wear tags on arrival in the UK, ask small boats to contact France for rescue

Reports emerge suggesting that Patel will set out a plan to make working-age people wear tags, thereby making it harder for them to seek employment in the UK. This follows reports that the British coastguard is regularly telling stricken small boats to contact France instead.

2022: 45,756 people arrive by small boat crossings

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April: Send asylum seekers to Rwanda

The government sets out its plan to send tens of thousands of unauthorised migrants to Rwanda for processing. Almost a year later, nobody has yet been sent, and the plans remain on hold. But both Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss say during the Conservative leadership campaign that they want more Rwanda-style deals.

September: New plan to restart ‘pushbacks’ of small boats, aim to reduce crossings to zero, tell civil servants to watch more reality TV

Documents released under Freedom of Information laws reveal that the government wants to restore its previous policy of forcing those crossing to go back to France. Meanwhile, the new home secretary, Suella Braverman, causes consternation in the Home Office by saying she wants to reduce the number of crossings to zero. She also tells officials to watch more “trashy TV” for the good of their mental health.

October: Work with France, blame asylum seekers

After Braverman’s notorious comment comparing those making the crossing to an “invasion”, she signs a new £63m deal with France to increase patrols. It is the fourth such deal in three years. Sunak says he is “confident” numbers will be reduced. Later, when Braverman is asked about governmental failings over the crisis at Manston processing centre, she says: “It’s the people who are breaking our rules … that’s who’s at fault.”

December: Blame civil servants

Braverman tells a committee of MPs that the backlog of asylum claims is the result of civil servants’ failure to work quickly enough. “Our asylum caseworking team do a great job but their productivity, frankly, is too low,” she says.

2023: 2,950 people arrive by small boat crossings so far

January: Keep people-smugglers off social media, monitor asylum seekers, suggest children could be sent to Rwanda

After familiar suggestions on social media and an update of ankle tags to GPS tracking devices, Robert Jenrick, immigration minister, suggests that ruling out sending families to Rwanda could encourage traffickers to bring them across the Channel instead of single males. “There’s not necessarily a bar to families being removed to Rwanda,” he says.

February: Leave the European convention on human rights (ECHR), use questionnaires to clear asylum backlog

The Guardian reports that several ministers want to leave the ECHR, which is blamed for the failure of the Rwanda scheme. Rishi Sunak is reported to be considering the move. Meanwhile, plans to replace official interviews for asylum seekers with questionnaires – which will leave claimants risking refusal if they do not reply in English within 20 days – prompt backbencher Sir Bob Neill to ask: “If Conservatives don’t believe in the rule of law, what do we believe in? Are we going to put ourselves in the same company as Russia and Belarus?”

What else we’ve been reading

Betsy Stanko.
Betsy Stanko. Composite: Getty Images / Martin Godwin for the Guardian / Guardian Design
  • For the long read, Melissa Denes has a superb profile of Betsy Stanko (above), the criminologist tasked with changing how the police investigate rape amid a scramble to respond to the crimes of Wayne Couzens. “It’s Groundhog Day,” she says. “But this time the wedge is going in so deep they’re not going to be able to pull it out.” Archie

  • Gen Z has taken to the medium of T-shirts to get their point across – and if you’re struggling to catch their meaning, Shaad D’Souza dissects the meaning behind the new fad for slogan tees, and how they’ve outclassed their millennial equivalents. Toby Moses, head of newsletters

  • Kirsty Major explains the ticking timebomb of millennial finances, with inherited wealth likely to be an even greater dividing line that it already is. Toby

  • Jack Shenker has a good piece about the apparent faultline in environmental activism between radical and conventional protest – and how the real issue is whether responsibility lies with humanity as a whole, or “specific actors, and specific political and economic systems built to enrich and protect them”. Archie

  • Some good news – the age old adage of “no pain, no gain” is a myth. Joel Snape talks to fitness experts about how the most effective exercise often require little to no pain at all (unless you want the physique of an 80s-era Arnold Schwarzenegger, in which case “feeling the burn” is all part of the fun). Toby


Ivan Toney.
Ivan Toney. Photograph: Matthew Childs/Action Images/Reuters

Football | Ivan Toney (above) scored his 22nd consecutive penalty as Brentford secured a 3-2 victory against Fulham in the Premier League. Meanwhile, Barney Ronay writes of Manchester United’s “black swan” 7-0 drubbing by Liverpool: “It is necessary to consider not just the evidence of Sunday but also the evidence of progress already made.”

Cricket | Bangladesh beat England by 50 runs in a low-scoring third one day international, with England’s pursuit of 247 stymied by Shakib Al Hasan’s 4-35 from ten overs. England captain Jos Buttler defended experimenting in the match with the series already won, saying: “I’ve got no regrets at all.”

Football | There is growing optimism Fifa could drop plans to make Visit Saudi a key sponsor of the women’s World Cup before it begins in July. After reports of the deal with Saudi Arabia’s tourism arm in January, critics within the game branded the deal “totally inappropriate” and “outrageous”.

The front pages

Guardian front page, Tuesday 7 March 2023
Photograph: Guardian

Our Guardian print edition leads this morning with “Revealed: biggest ‘super-emitting’ methane leaks threatening climate”. “Sunak’s plan to stop Channel migrants may be unworkable, Tories warn him” – the “him” on the end in the i is an example of questionable headline construction. “We will push human rights law to limit” – that’s what ministers say about Sunak’s small boats plan, according to the Daily Mail. “Suella: back law to stop boats … or betray Britain” says the Daily Express, under the banner “Home secretary throws down gauntlet to opposition”. “PM plans annual cap on number of refugees” says the Times.

“Block funds for MPs who don’t toe line on lockdown” – that’s in the Telegraph, from the Hancock WhatsApp leak. “No honour” – the Daily Mirror fulminates over Boris Johnson reportedly wanting a knighthood for his father. “Sunak must stop this farce,” it insists. The Financial Times has “Speaker McCarthy to meet Taiwan’s leader in US to avert Beijing backlash”. “Family’s double tragedy” – the Metro splashes with the Cardiff car crash.

Today in Focus

Screen grab of Matt Hancock speaking during a media briefing in Downing Street, London
Photograph: PA Video/PA

What have we learned from Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp messages?

More than 100,000 of the former health secretary’s phone messages have been leaked. What have they really told us about the way the government handled the pandemic?

Cartoon of the day | Joe Lawrence

Joe Lawrence on Rishi Sunak’s tough talk on small boat crossings
Illustration: Joe Lawrence/The Guardian

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

Kerbal Space Program 2, the sequel to a game that has seemingly inspired a generation of scientists.
Kerbal Space Program 2, the sequel to a game that has seemingly inspired a generation of scientists. Photograph: Private Division

Released in 2011, Kerbal Space Program is more than just a video game featuring little green aliens – it’s also grounded in science, and beloved of space enthusiasts. So popular has it proved, in fact, that it has encouraged many to study related disciplines, as Dr Uri Shumlack of the University of Washington found out when he was contacted by the makers of the game, only to discovered that many of his engineering students had enrolled in his class because they had played it.

Guardian video games editor and writer of Pushing Buttons, the Guardian’s gaming newsletter, Keza Macdonald, met the team behind a recent follow-up, Kerbal Space Program 2, made in collaboration with the European Space Agency. “The ESA is working on getting the first Europeans on to the surface of the moon,” she writes. “No doubt some of the people who work on that mission will have achieved it in this game first.”

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s puzzles are here to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until tomorrow.

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