Complete melts

Priti vs the ice cream hippies (aka Unilever PLC)

Artillery Row

It’s curious priorities when the Home Secretary takes time out from an illegal immigration crisis in the Channel to brand Ben and Jerry’s as being “over priced Junk food.” Perhaps a new piece of nanny statism on the way or maybe Boris’s desire to get the nation to help him lose weight means a ban on midmarket ice cream is in the Number 10 pipeline. Maybe. But perhaps the real reason here is not the PM’s desire to create an environment in which he can lose the pounds, but a Home Secretary’s optical needs. Priti Patel is in dire need of distracting key target Tory voters from her inability to tackle immigration, and is doing so by picking a fight with a well-known right-on brand.

As Andrew Neil pointed out on Twitter, there is no need to be sympathetic to multinational corporate subsidiary Ben and Jerry’s. After all, it’s just good publicity for them. Having sold out for over $300m to the Anglo-Dutch firm Unilever, the corporate suits have tried to maintain the brand’s original moralising image. Tweeting in support of the channel boat people was no accident, just a misguided attempt at brand management by an accounting division.

Unilever itself is no stranger to self-interested politics. It let it be known, to enormous fanfare here, that it would leave the UK for the Netherlands if Brexit came about. This year the firm decided, to absolute no #DespiteBrexit fanfare whatsoever, to in fact junk its historic dual Anglo-Dutch corporate structure to move wholesale to the UK to avoid tax (while retaining a corporate toehold in the Netherlands in order to avoid a Dutch exit tax). It’s just business.

What’s politically interesting is the length of time it took the Home Secretary to go from stating she would solve the Channel crisis to going for an ice cream. She discovered what many people have before her: government is hard, slogans are easy, and the former requires grasp of detail, planning and perseverance. Historically British immigration policy has been the trickiest of subjects requiring the ablest of politicians. Today the challenge is Priti Patel’s.

For whatever combination of reasons, the UK remains a hugely powerful immigration magnet: there is a pull to this side of the Channel which does not happen in reverse. Illegal migrants, mostly men in their 20s and 30s, know that if they get to the UK, they will have a benign legal environment in which to evade subsequently being removed. Added to this, the UK has by far the most flexible and accessible labour market in Europe, the English language, tolerant attitude to migrants, large diaspora communities and minimal physical checks on the person compared to the habitually much more intrusive state regimes in EU states.

Taking cheap shots back at easy corporate targets is a poor excuse for doing the hard grind of government

The UK working with France after decades of delay has been reasonably successful in stopping migrants stowing away on lorries. Fences and scans and the removal of French shanty towns in Sangatte have largely blocked this off. But as that has happened the allure of rowing the Channel has increased. The French see no real reason to help, believing, partially correctly, it’s a problem of the UK’s own making. Each migrant that leaves France is one less they need to process, although the residents of Calais, who play temporary host to this clandestine population, see things rather differently. Whatever bilateral measures we can agree which encourage the French to help stop boats departing means paying them money. But as long as there is the demand, to leave eminently civilised France in the first place for the post-Brexit wasteland which is the UK, the overall direction of travel will remain in place.

Priti Patel has loudly promised to eliminate the problem. Albeit not by speaking directly to the press – No 10 doesn’t ever seem very keen on that – but by making ‘direct’ communications via video with the public. After blaming the French for something it’s very unlikely we’d do if things were reversed (keeping to ourselves a problem which might very conveniently depart for other places if we let it), the Home Secretary waved the magical military wand. The Royal Navy would solve the problem, somehow. This was plainly ludicrous. Realisation followed up close behind, Tweeting an article by her deputy, she realised there are “legislative, legal & operational barriers to stopping small boats.” Who knew? Well, anyone who has paid attention to immigration policy would and should. At this rhetorical point, Priti Patel froze, turning instead to Ben and Jerry’s.

Reducing immigration is difficult, not least because most of the many politicians who claim to want to do so have had no intention of following through. It doesn’t matter in that regard whether the goal is right, wrong, feasible or otherwise: decades of proclaimed hostility towards illegal immigration not being matched by policies which restrict and reduce it have had inevitable consequences. Not least for the bewildered and beleaguered officials trying to match up the words, their seeming meanings, and the actually all too-limited resources they’ve been given.

This parliament will be the test of the government’s sincerity, in this as in so many other fields. All the control anyone could want can be taken back with an 80-plus majority in the Commons. The current set of legal obstacles to easy and efficient deportations of illegal immigrants can be changed, if the government wants, and is prepared to do the necessary parliamentary work. We could process migrants offshore and even settle them in other states, as long as the Channel route was less appetising.

Taking cheap shots back at easy corporate targets is a poor excuse for doing the hard grind of government which Priti Patel should be attending. The voters who won the referendum and helped to put her in power would expect no less. So far the only evidence we have for what the government is going to do is melting in the sunlight.

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