After watching Gavin Williamson remain in post as Education Secretary for month after month, it can be difficult even for an optimist to credit that the Prime Minister might finally be on the brink of a long-overdue reshuffle.
But despite some old hands insisting its just a way to ensure loyalty over his manifesto-busting tax hike, it looks as if the rumours have spooked at least some of his Cabinet colleagues.
That seems the most likely explanation for why Priti Patel would be telling MPs she might scrap the £54 million deal the Government negotiated with France to increase the number of patrols and intercept more would-be Channel crossings.
It’s understandable that the Home Secretary needs something to placate angry MPs. Likewise that she should be frustrated with the French, whose intercept rate has apparently slumped in recent months and who keep citing health and safety or privacy concerns to refuse using aerial surveillance to crack down on people smugglers – even when the UK is providing the kit.
Even so, what is to be gained by threatening the funding? It seems pretty clear that Patel has more riding on this than Gérald Darmanin, her French counterpart, and he surely knows it. Without the cash, France will have even less incentive to step up its patrols, the pressure on the Government will get worse, and whoever succeeds Patel as Home Secretary will most likely offer Paris the same deal (albeit the price might have gone up).
In truth, there probably isn’t a real solution to the problem at the moment. Short of garrisoning the French coast, there is no way to ensure the boats don’t set off. Short of sinking them, there’s no way to ensure they don’t get here.
So the question is what happens then. The Government is right to change to the rules to make it much more difficult (if not impossible) for someone who arrives here illegally to get residency and citizenship. But in the long-term, that only works if you have a way of getting them out again. Which leads us to the separate problems of repatriation and the Home Office’s apparently dead-end hunt for a means to copy Australia’s offshore-processing model.
There is little public appetite for the Refugee Council line that these people have been “forced to take dangerous journeys to seek safety” – quite rightly, as these people are sailing from France rather than Syria. Voters expect that something be done. It just isn’t obvious what.