Priti Patel addressed the Commons in miserable circumstances, following the biggest single loss of life in the Channel since the migrant crisis began. “There are no simple solutions,” she warned.
MPs agreed it was a heartbreaking tragedy. Some blamed human traffickers, European inaction and government xenophobia. The Home Secretary condemned French mulishness for the impasse. But on what to do next, the House rapidly descended into a battle of head against heart, pragmatists versus idealists.
Lining up on the sympathetic side were the SNP and the independent MP for Islington North, late of the Labour whip, Jeremy Corbyn. “Pushing them back is not a solution,” he proclaimed. “It is brutality.”
Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow home secretary, walked a tricky tightrope. In Keir Starmer’s new-look Labour Party, he could not look too soft on migrants, nor commit that ultimate Europhile sin – siding with France. But nor could he risk agreeing with Priti Patel too violently.
In Labour circles, the Home Secretary serves as the ultimate pantomime villain; capable of sparking rage with a slight twinge of the eyebrow or hint of a smirk. Thomas-Symonds attempted to plot a middle way between the bleeding hearts and the Wicked Witch of Witham by calling for less radical moves – further assistance for unaccompanied child refugees and reversing aid budget cuts.
Massed on the pragmatists’ side of the aisle were the Tory awkward squad. Christopher Chope, Philip Hollobone and Sir Edward Leigh formed a tough-nut triptych. “We have to face down the human rights lawyers,” boomed Leigh. “When governments are soft, people die!”
Some SNP MPs painted the Government as a heartless landlord, callously turning away the needy and desperate. “Will she commit today to ending all discussion of the dangerous practice of offshoring?” demanded a hand-wringing Martyn Day.
There was just one problem. Scotland had hardly rolled out the welcome mat itself. The Home Secretary glowered at Day with an unassailable air of self-righteousness. “I’m very disappointed by the Honourable Gentleman in his tone, comments and his inability to understand the situation.”
She had worn a sky-blue collared suit, reminiscent of an old-style nurse’s cape, and momentarily channelled Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as in tones of sickly sweet faux-regret, she reminded him of Scotland’s less than hospitable record.
“It’s such a shame that the SNP, a party that has failed to support asylum seekers in their own local authorities…”
This prompted dark mutterings on the SNP benches and a few muffled gasps of rage. The pantomime villain seemed on the verge of a proper booing, but she plugged on anyway. “Thirty-one out of 32 local authorities do not participate in the voluntary dispersal scheme for housing asylum seekers,” snarled the Home Secretary, “so there’s an inconsistency there.”
An hour later, the Commons seemed no closer to agreeing on the causes of this intractable problem – let alone finding a solution.