Tragically, Priti Patel’s plan to send asylum seekers to a volcano 4,000 miles away really is the best she can do

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 Home Secretary Priti Patel arrives for a cabinet meeting at the FCO in London

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The second wave always has the potential to be more deadly than the first, and never has that been more true than with regard to Priti Patel’s brand new plan to send asylum seekers to live on a volcano 4,000 miles away.

The first wave was the news itself, which struck two days ago, that the home secretary had had her staff investigate the possibility of processing British asylum seekers on Ascension Island, fully 4,000 miles away, with a native population of 880 and one direct flight per week, which is not from the UK.

The instant reaction to this was that this was a stupid idea, principally because it is a stupid idea. A staggeringly stupid one. The reason for this, and I don’t say this lightly or without due consideration, is that Patel is a staggeringly stupid person.

This is scarcely even an opinion but quite possibly a statement of fact. If you don’t agree then do watch the video of our now home secretary, on BBC Question Time nine years ago, arguing in favour of the return of the death penalty, when it is pointed out to her that everywhere it exists, it leads to the execution of innocent people.

And watch her not merely disagree with this point, but be demonstrably incapable of understanding it. It is simply too complex for her. She cannot understand it.

The second wave, though, came with the polling. Actually, it turns out that 40 per cent of the country think that having an asylum centre on Ascension Island is a good idea, compared to a mere 35 per cent who think it’s a bad idea.

This discrepancy was, inevitably, seized upon by Brexiteers, particularly Michael Heaver, the former Brexit Party MEP. That it is, on any terms, a complete self-own continues, sadly, to elude him.

But this is the thing about populism. It’s popular. The clue is in the name. Easy solutions are popular. Far more popular than complex problems. And we live in a democracy, so if the people like the solution, the people must be right, and the problem is solved.

Five years ago, I happened to go out canvassing with Jacob Rees Mogg in Somerset for the 2015 election. It was approaching the height of the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. It was a week after The Sun had published an article by Katie Hopkins, referring to the drowning families as “cockroaches.” A man approached Mr Rees-Mogg, carrying a copy of The Sun under his arm, with refugees in the Mediterranean forming its front page splash. “I probably shouldn’t say this,” he said. “But I’m glad they’re drowning.”

Boris Johnson says he has confidence in Priti Patel following bullying allegations

Beating down on asylum seekers is popular. The more brutal the plan, the more popular it is likely to be. It won’t solve the problem, of course, that’s far more difficult and infinitely beyond Ms Patel’s capabilities, but, you know, if the people like it, who cares?    

We also now know that Ascension Island is not the only lightbulb going off above Patel’s head. She’s also been looking at Moldova, Morocco and Papua New Guinea. She’s been looking at offshore oil rigs, and disused passenger ferries (because there’s absolutely no evidence around, at the moment, to suggest that cruise ships are a bad idea). She’s also been looking at, brace for it, chaining small boats together to stop migrant boats from landing, some sort of underwater barrier, and arguably the best of all, a giant artificial wave machine, which we understand has now been ruled out on the basis it would capsize the overly laden boats and drown those onboard.

We understand the more draconian measures have been ruled out on the basis they all stand in clear contradiction of international law, which may even come as some comfort to know our government is still vaguely aware of such a thing.    

That these plans have been leaked have also displeased the populist masters. We cannot know for certain if it was Dominic Cummings or merely one of his obsequious band of impressionists who provided the following quote to Politico in response to the news:

“There is a rotten core of civil servants who have never gotten over Brexit, want revenge for the incompetent [Philip] Rutnam and fear the hard rain that is coming. They’re the enemy within and will be rooted out.”

Your entry level madness is here is that the thing they’re angry about is the instant reaction to the stupidity of their own plans.

One up from that is the reference to the Home Office’s chief civil servant, Philip Rutnam, who stood down earlier this year claiming he had been subjected to systemic bullying by Patel. The official investigation into that has not been published by 10 Downing Street. The prime minister’s official spokesperson has been asked when it will be published more than 20 times in the last three months in his daily briefing with Westminster journalists and has each time refused to answer the question. But in the meantime, we must, alas read the above line and come to our own conclusions about whether it’s possible that Rutnam might have been telling the truth.

And then there’s the vertigo-inducing top level. The one in which Cummings and Co use the word incompetent with reference to actual other people. It is difficult to say whether there is a single person anywhere in the country who could name a single thing they have achieved beyond turning themselves into a by-word for incompetence, levelling said charge against others.

Of course, even Cummings’s harshest critics might, somewhere buried very deep within, be prepared to admit to a small kindling of hope that he might know what he’s doing, that there really is some grand plan. That it’s not always going to be this unutterably awful. That maybe one day, he’ll spend £500m of public money on a weird satellite company run by his mates that then goes bankrupt and it’ll all come good. That we just need to get through this next bit, when all of the senior civil servants have quit, and when only the most useless cabinet in British political history by several orders of magnitude remains, at that point the plan can finally come good.

Hope, really, is all you can do. The alternative is to concede that this unimaginable shambles really is the best they’ve got. That they really are just two-bit populists without the tiniest clue what they’re doing. And that couldn’t be true, could it?

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