John Mullin: Cameron fails his test of compassion

The Royal Navy aid the humanitarian effort in the Mediterranean but other UK help for migrants is negligible. Picture: AP
The Royal Navy aid the humanitarian effort in the Mediterranean but other UK help for migrants is negligible. Picture: AP
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With ambitious ministers playing to the right wing, PM is putting his party before his country, writes John Mullin

A week in politics, and all that. David Cameron, no doubt rather bewildered, found himself turning on the emollience last Friday. Why not?

Her tone was, well, off-key/strident/disgraceful. You choose

Before ten the previous night and that shock exit poll, his only hope lay in somehow scrambling in with the Liberals again. Instead, with one unexpected bound of the electorate south of the Border, he was free. With none of Nick Clegg’s pesky crew to hold him back, he was back in charge. This time, in sole charge.

A chance at redemption, perhaps? Of demonstrating that the potential to be a great prime minister could yet be fulfilled? Of showing us his true political philosophy, which has always been tantalisingly elusive?

Outside Number Ten, he said: “I want my party, and I hope a government I would like to lead, to reclaim a mantle that we should never have lost – the mantle of One Nation, one United Kingdom.” Leave aside the implications for Scotland for a moment, and focus on the One Nation part.

What we recognise by this description – and it is applied specifically to Tory toffs – is less about the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom, and more about the way you do politics. It embodies fairness, decency and of putting country above party. Cue grainy footage of Harold Macmillan.

True, Cameron’s election campaign relegated the UK behind the needs of the Conservatives. By talking up the SNP, he scared English voters to the Tory camp, while contributing to the destruction of Labour here. With what long term-consequences, we cannot yet know.

But he did say last Friday he would “govern in the interests of all people”. And he did subsequently promise to root reform of public services in “true social justice and genuine compassion”.

Maybe we would come to discover he was indeed more Hug a Hoodie than the Agent of Austerity. After all, he has signalled he will stand down as PM before the next election. What has he to lose?

Step forward, then, Theresa May, the longest-serving home secretary in more than 50 years. It hasn’t taken her long to prick the balloon.

In days gone by, Mrs May liked to assume liberal tendencies, once berating the Tories as “the nasty party”. That, though, was 13 years, and many pairs of Russell & Bromley kitten heels, ago.

Today, she is a credible candidate for the Tory leadership, and needs to appeal to the party’s key right wing. She knows Boris Johnson will be on manoeuvres soon, and so has wasted no time in setting out her stall.

It involved blocking a European Commission proposal that EU members should take in refugees under a quota scheme. Her tone was, well, off-key/strident/disgraceful. You choose.

Italy paid the £5 million a month cost of its Mare Nostrum search and rescue mission in the Mediterranean until last November, when the EU replaced it with Operation Triton, a much more limited operation. Europe’s rationale? That saving these people would only encourage more to attempt the crossing.

As a policy approach, Let Them Die is pretty hardline. It’s also utterly ineffective.

These refugees are fleeing desperate places and see any chance of making it to Europe better than staying. No surprise, then, that the numbers are still rising despite the increased chance of perishing on the crossing.

More than 1,800 migrants have died this year in the Mediterranean, a 20-fold increase on the same period in 2014. About 60,000 people have already crossed from Libya this year.

At least after last month, when five boats went down in a week with the loss of 1,200 lives, Europe admits it got it wrong. It is pouring more resources into Operation Triton, and, crucially, is now trying to spread the burden of the incoming migrants away from Italy in particular. Mrs May is having none of it. “The UK will not participate in a mandatory system of resettlement or relocation,” she wrote in a newspaper article.

She explained that those crossing the Mediterranean to seek better lives in Europe should be returned to Africa to thwart the “terrible callous trade in human beings”. She wanted to remove the incentive for desperate people, and the people smugglers who take advantage of them, to put their lives at risk.

But the vast majority are not, as she suggests, economic migrants. Most are fleeing Libya, Syria, Somalia, and so are genuine refugees (often from situations we have helped create), as well she knows. It is a sly misrepresentation of Europe’s approach, which allows for economic migrants to be returned after assessment.

So what is she playing at? The Tories have failed on their pledge on immigration in 2010, to cut net immigration to 100,000 a year. It was 298,000 last year.

She knows, of course, there is little Britain can do because the vast majority of immigration is from EU states. But she is well aware it is a toxic issue, with Ukip garnering four million votes last week.

More to the point, it is an issue where votes are to be had in a leadership election. And a spot of Brussels-bashing can only help her too.

In Scotland, we have a better attitude towards immigration than our English cousins. We realise that our ageing population means we need that invigoration of our economy, and of our communities. And we know how to help those in need.

Alex Salmond, now the SNP’s foreign affairs spokesman, was appalled at Mrs May’s position. “I can think of very few people in Scotland – and very few people in England either – who would want to turn away people in total extremity given the scenes we have all witnessed over the last few months. Britain should take the full 60,000 and Scotland is willing to take our proportionate share, and we will argue for that.”

60,000? Of the six million displaced people from Syria, Britain has taken in fewer than 100. Astounding. The European Commission plan would see us take 2309 refugees, initially.

So David Cameron fails his first test of compassion in his second term. Is it because he believes this type of nonsense? Or is it perhaps that it’s just too much effort to rein in ambitious ministers?