Military to be used to stem Channel crossings as Johnson seeks to stay PM

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Military to be used to stem Channel crossings as Johnson seeks to stay PM
© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

The UK armed forces are to be put in charge of stopping people from travelling across the Channel in small boats as Boris Johnson seeks to sidestep the partygate scandal and remain as prime minister.

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Priti Patel, the home secretary, has been in talks about the involvement of the military for weeks, Whitehall sources said, as the numbers travelling from France have continued through the winter.

Reports have claimed that plans are also being drawn up to send people to countries such as Ghana and Rwanda for processing and resettlement.

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Related: Boris Johnson prepares a populist offensive to save his skin

It follows reports over the weekend that No 10 has launched “Operation Red Meat” amid growing public anger over Downing Street parties.

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The prime minister will give the Royal Navy “primacy” over all government vessels in the Channel this month in one of a series of populist policies as calls grow for him to step down over Downing Street lockdown parties.

It comes as Boris Johnson awaits the senior civil servant Sue Gray’s report on the parties, which is expected to focus on the faults of senior civil servants in Downing Street.

The report is not expected to call for a criminal inquiry into Johnson, but Gray could still suggest that Christopher Geidt could investigate the prime minister for breaching the ministerial code.

The army and the navy would in theory be able to deploy naval ships, boats and sophisticated surveillance technology to bolster Border Force. Plans include asking the navy to intervene if Border Force officers go on strike or refuse to deploy “pushback” tactics, where boats or jet skis block and redirect migrants’ boats back towards France.

Record numbers of migrants are crossing the Channel in small boats, but the controversial tactic has so far not been used. The Guardian disclosed in November that government lawyers have advised that the odds of successfully defending a challenge in the courts against the lawfulness of plans to send vessels carrying people back to France is “less than 30%”.

The Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents some border and immigration officials, has said it “totally opposes” the policy and has threatened strike action. It has also joined with the Care4Calais charity to seek a judicial review of the tactic, which it claims is illegal.

A government source confirmed that the plans have been discussed and brought forward, adding it would be up to the Ministry of Defence to determine operational deployments. “The home secretary called for the military to defend UK territorial waters against illegal migration in August 2020, when the first request for support went into the MoD,” said a Whitehall source.

The education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, said on Monday that bringing in the military would be a good idea.

“It is a good idea that there is a single command and control, and that includes not just naval vessels but all other vessels including Border Force, so that you actually have a coordinated operation in terms of the small boats.

“A really important idea is the legislation that Priti Patel has put through parliament to allow us to have a much better way of dealing with illegal migration because there are legal routes for migration, you know, I’m the son of immigrants.”

He said the government wanted to “go after the illegal smugglers who are putting these people’s lives at risk”.

But when told those were not the ones on the boats, he added: “Well, they’re the ones we want.”

Reports have claimed that the military could also transport migrants to offshore processing centres, as proposed in the government’s nationality and borders bill, or even operate deportation flights of foreign criminals.

The moves follow a record 28,300 migrants crossing the Channel to the UK last year, more than three times the 8,400 in 2020. There is no sign of a decline this year – 581 have already crossed the Channel this month, already more than double the total for January last year.

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