Author: JOHN CRACE
Imagine it. The UK gripped by a cold spell far worse than the Beast From The East over the entire Christmas period. Roads and motorways are closed, entire towns and villages are cut off and hospitals have shut their A&E departments and are turning away patients because council and NHS staff have insisted they are operating a skeleton service and aren’t going to return to resume normal operations until the first week of January. It just wouldn’t happen. There would be a national outcry and politicians would have rightly declared the situation to be an emergency.
Now consider this. At a time when the country is facing its greatest political, constitutional and existential crisis since the Second World War, parliament has been in recess, The only signs of activity being the tumbleweed rolling through Westminster. With well under 100 days until the UK is due to leave the European Union on 29 March and no sign of an agreement about what terms that withdrawal should take place under, the government went into an effective two-week shutdown.
The politicians themselves may well shrug. Some may argue that Theresa May has played a canny game in running down the clock, making it more likely that wavering Tory MPs will back her unpopular deal rather than risk the UK leaving with no deal whatsoever. Others may say that the extra two weeks would have made little difference: that parliament would still have been unable to agree on anything – May’s deal, no deal, a second referendum, an extension to Article 50 or a general election – so MPs may just as well have used the time to put their feet up and let tempers cool a little. But either way, it hasn’t been a great look. There are times when it’s important to stand up and be counted, even if you know you are probably only going through the motions, to show that the people running the country are aware of the gravity of the situation and are prepared to make sacrifices. And this was one of those occasions. At a time of huge uncertainty, the government went missing in action by refusing to allow itself to be held accountable in parliament. It makes you wonder just what constitutes a crisis these days.
In November and early December, some 200 or so Iranian and Syrian refugees crossed the Channel from France to the Kent coast in tiny rubber dinghies to seek asylum in the UK under international law. As far as I remember, that wasn’t considered a crisis. The numbers weren’t seen to be exceptionally large, more people were seeking asylum via other points of entry and no one raised this as a matter of huge concern in parliament. Brexit was the only topic on every minister’s mind and a few hundred asylum seekers were neither here nor there.
On Christmas Day, having taken advantage of unusually calm conditions in the Channel, some 40 or so refugees were filmed by a passer-by landing on the beach in Kent. The footage led the TV broadcasts on what is always a slow news day and the question of asylum seekers instantly became a national emergency. The right-wing media had a field day – foreigners coming over here to take advantage of our goodwill; the UK hadn’t voted to leave the EU to allow people who weren’t from the EU into the country; etc – and the government immediately went into a meltdown.
The home secretary, Sajid Javid, who had been holed up in an £800 per night safari lodge in South Africa, broke off his holiday, left his family behind and returned to the UK so that he could be seen to be taking charge of a situation that didn’t really need anyone to take charge of it and could easily have been left to a junior minister – had not that junior minister been Caroline Nokes, an MP almost as incompetent and accident prone as Chris Grayling, who himself was fighting a losing rearguard action over his decision to award a £13.8 million ferry contract to a company that had no ferries and aspired to nothing more than delivering pizzas.
Once back in the country, “The Sajid”, as he has taken to referring to himself, spent three days appearing in front of TV cameras, achieving precisely nothing other than to look busy and – either deliberately or out of ignorance – confuse genuine asylum seekers with illegal immigrants. And then everyone forgot about people landing on the Kent coast again. But for the home secretary it was a job well done, not because he had actually achieved anything, but because he had established his credentials as a future leader of the Conservative Party when Theresa May inevitably moves on. No one could now accuse The Sajid of being the man who did nothing when the country was threatened by two rubber dinghies.
But this hadn’t just been a crisis for The Sajid. It had also been a crisis for the fireplace salesman turned defence secretary, Gavin Williamson. Because the one thing he could not afford was any situation that made the home secretary looked good, as Williamson also has designs on becoming leader of the Tory party. So he could not allow The Sajid to become supreme commander of the “Stop the 40 asylum seekers” movement. With this in mind, Williamson hastily transferred two Royal Navy ships from the Mediterranean, where they had been engaged in genuinely useful work searching for migrants crossing from North Africa, to the Channel, where they could hunt down and destroy a couple of rubber dinghies. Give him enough time and Williamson would happily arrange a pointless raid on Dieppe.
So there we had our definition of a major national crisis. It wasn’t a situation, such as Brexit, which threatens the jobs and livelihoods of millions of people. It was a minor incident that threatened the career prospects of a couple of government ministers who have their eye on the top job. The one small consolation in all this for the rest of us is the certain knowledge that long after The Sajid has failed to become prime minister, his family will never forgive him for ruining their Christmas holiday.