Johnson’s dead cat speech mustn’t sidetrack us from the big issues: partygate, Covid, Home Office failings

Photo by Miko Guziuk on Unsplash

Maybe until this month, Boris Johnson could have got away with the dead cat speech of 14 April. A rousing play to the ‘Leave’-voting gallery, appealing to xenophobia and fear whilst making a rational-sounding case for deporting thousands of young men each year to what amounts to a penal colony in Rwanda. Except, he is trying this coup de force in a month in which many British-born people of all political viewpoints will unexpectedly have gained an inside view of our legal migration processes.

The invasion of Ukraine has caused a humanitarian crisis to which many British people are characteristically responding, offering up homes, know-how and resources to desperate refugees from Putin’s aggression. And for the first time, many of us are getting to see under the bonnet of those legal migration processes, as we apply in an emergency to house Ukrainian guests who are currently stuck in war-torn parts of Ukraine or in precarious emergency accommodation. And what we see is not pretty.

Our migration process is most certainly not the well-oiled machine the Home Secretary or the Prime Minister would have us believe. It is, unusually for British bureaucracy, wordy, onerous, clunky, fragmented and overwhelmingly unfriendly and unwelcoming. It is also unresponsive and horrifically slow. A process hastily repurposed to handle a humanitarian crisis that morally even this government could not wriggle out of addressing (especially with public opinion crying out for something to be done).

Johnson’s misfortune is that even his core voters have been anxious to help Ukraine, and they have seen for themselves the spikey maze that is the legal migration route: they know beyond a shadow of a doubt how cumbersome and impossible it is.

Johnson’s speech – for the optics, delivered in Kent, “The Garden of England” and the county geographically closest to the European mainland – comes at a time when thousands of people on both sides of this moat unexpectedly find themselves grappling with the immigration bureaucracy. And it truly is “world-beating”, but in only one respect: its staggering unfitness for purpose. A form that asks toddlers if they have ever served in the army or security services, or which becomes immediately suspicious when one ticks the box to say it is not possible to speak to the applicant on the phone (of course it’s not! It’s a baby under two years old for Pete’s sake!), or which takes destitute applicants to a “payments page” even though no fee is required, gives insights into the huge barriers of bureaucracy placed in the way of legal migration.

Even for native English speakers, these forms are difficult to fill in – how much more so if you are cold, hungry, on limited internet, living in a bombed-out city, travelling, or even simply constantly on call to small children?

Johnson was at pains to emphasise the good sense of deporting would-be immigrants to Rwanda – it’s to discourage people. But the legal migration route does this entirely by itself.

The money planned to be spent on turning Rwanda – a country with its own host of humanitarian problems – into an outsourced outpost of our Home Office, could so much better be spent meeting would-be migrants at agreed and agreeable places. Not two blokes, a foldy table and a packet of crisps; but instead of callously outsourcing the more unsavoury aspects of our own border control, how about a fixed location where would-be migrants could present themselves, seek asylum, state their intended final destination and their skills, and sign up to be trained according to their capacities for some of the now-huge number of vacancies that seem impossible to fill from our remaining post-Brexit workforce?

Would this not be a far more positive use of taxpayers’ money? Offer people a warm welcome and a job that desperately needs to be filled, allow people to become members of our society as soon as they step through that office door – that would truly wreck the traffickers’ business model.

It would be really disingenuous for the Prime Minister to suggest that people seeking to bypass the legal migration route are obviously only trying to access Britain for nefarious purposes, since a) our terrorism in recent years has been entirely home-grown, b) the very obstacles placed – for ideological purposes? – in the way of legal migration make unorthodox methods of reaching our shores all the more attractive, and c) deporting would-be migrants to Rwanda is both counter-productive and quite probably illegal. Yes, those ‘activist’ lawyers, also known as lawyers with a conscience and a knowledge of relevant law, will most certainly get involved. And it will not end well for Project Hulk Ship Rwanda.

But that wasn’t the point of the announcement. It was a dead cat speech designed to distract from Partygate and place the Prime Minister firmly back in his Churchill-at-war fantasy role.

Don’t be side-tracked. Demand justice for migrants of any kind – be it Ukrainians stuck in hotel rooms in Poland and waiting for the say-so of people in offices, or Afghans still in limbo in hotels supposedly managed by the Home Office – any person in search of a better, less disrupted life. Partygate, for all Johnson’s attempts to deflect attention away from it, is still there: 175,000 grieving families are testament to that. The PM partied while people died alone, and he paid a £50 fine for breaking the laws he made.

It is unlikely the families of Covid victims will be prepared to be sidetracked, and no more should any of the rest of us.  And the immigration system is still evidently unfit for purpose.