Week-in-Review: The Bibby Stockholm is a floating case study in political failure

Politicians are known to hunt and deploy symbols to serve as markers of success. It is why it’s home secretary Suella Braverman’s “dream” and “obsession” to see a plane rise up from UK soil, full of asylum seekers, Rwanda bound. It is also why the government is willing to countenance the extremely high cost of the controversial project, estimated to total £169,000 per person, and firm the immediate moral backlash.

This basic political logic explains why the ECHR’s interim injunction that grounded the first Rwanda-bound flight, issued on 14 June 2022, was such a fiasco for ministers. The government had stoked expectations and primed the media for a moment of real triumph. But the images media outlets ran the next day were not of landing gear leaving British tarmac, and a smiling Priti Patel (the then-home secretary), but of a plane stilled by an external actor. 

Today, the Rwanda deportations plan is set for a Supreme Court showdown — the outcome of which will send shockwaves through Westminster. But ahead of this, perhaps in an attempt to get ahead of a politically trying verdict, the government opted to proceed with a “small boats week”. And with the fruits of their flagship international asylum accord still ripening, ministers presented the next best thing: the Bibby Stockholm. 

Politically, the migrant barge serves the same purpose as the Rwanda deportations plan. The very presence of the Bibby Stockholm — and its appearance in newspapers up and down the country — was intended to signal the government’s seriousness on small boats. 

There was the party political edge, too. No 10 foresaw political trouble for a holidaying Keir Starmer as Labour decided whether to back the barge. With Starmer still attempting to signal his own seriousness on small boats, the barge emerged as a means by which ministers could create clear blue water between the Labour and Conservative parties on this increasingly salient area. 

So as the government touted the launch of its crackdown on “lefty lawyers” and its new agreement with Turkey to disrupt people-smuggling gangs, the Bibby Stockholm would sit steadfast in Dorset, deliberately conspicuous, as a profound signal of the government’s overriding intent. 

It meant, like with the Rwanda plan, that the government was willing to overlook problems regarding the cost of the vessel, the pointed condemnation of groups like the Fire Brigades Union and, of course, the immediate moral outrage. Indeed, while the government has argued the Bibby Stockholm will provide better value for money for the taxpayer, the scheme works for the government — not necessarily by working — but by signalling it is the Conservative party, and the Conservative party alone, that is willing to take the radical steps required to “stop the boats”. The scheme was deliberately controversial, and the immediate political furore that flowed from it was expected and desired.

Such is the new incentive our government now follows on migration policy: make the “blob” shake, stoke the flames with interventions from attack dogs like Lee Anderson and soak in the outrage — which in turn vindicates the scheme’s supposed virtues.

Thus ministers marched across the media studios to defend the new migrant accommodation. Immigration minister Robert Jenrick described the barge as “perfectly decent accommodation” which was similar to that used by British oil and gas workers. 

But how quickly matters have unravelled. 

Today, Sky News says that Jenrick has been chairing meetings about the discovery of legionella bacteria in the barge’s water supply. The broadcaster reports that tests were conducted of the barge’s water supply ahead of time, but that the despairing results were revealed on 7 August — the same day the first 15 asylum seekers boarded the barge. 

One can only question how the confusion and media hysteria that surrounded small boats week — conducted in the PM’s absence — affected the logistical aspects of the barge’s operation. A Home Office spokesperson has nonetheless insisted that the health and welfare of those on board the vessel “is our utmost priority”.

It means the Bibby Stockholm, once a pre-Rwanda signal of ministerial seriousness, is now a monument to the political failure that was small boats week. 

It comes after the week kicked off on Monday with Conservative chairman Lee Anderson, first, telling asylum seekers who did not want to board the barge to “F**k off back to France” and, second, suggesting the government had “completely and utterly failed everyone” on illegal migration.

Of course, small boats week also provided the backdrop for a further round of Conservative infighting on the European Court of Human Rights. The Telegraph reported that as many as a third of the cabinet were talking up the prospect of leaving, which senior Conservative MP Sir Bob Neill described as “completely foolish and absolutely wrong”.

The tussle was started by a typically tough media performance from Jenrick who told Times Radio that: “We will do whatever is required take whatever necessary action is needed”. The will-they-won’t-they which now defines the government’s approach to the ECHR will surely soon become crippling for party management — especially if we see further judicial setbacks on the Rwanda plan. 

Then there were the new figures. It has been revealed that 11 “small boats” carrying 100s of asylum seekers have crossed the Channel since Monday; that one of the govt’s £420k  “eye in the sky” drones crashed in the Channel; and, of course, the fact that will be causing the most consternation in No 10: that Britain has passed the 100,000 mark of arrivals on small boats since records began in 2010.

The failure of small boats week begs the question of the government’s new communications strategy, said to be founded on taking striking lines on salient, wedge issues. Indeed, Sunak has decided, as I wrote earlier this week, to treat the slow summer — coinciding with Keir Starmer’s own holiday — as the best time for the government to go on the offensive, trialling new attack lines and catching a fatigued opposition off-guard. Tyrannising silly season, Sunak entrusted his cabinet colleagues, including close allies like justice secretary Alex Chalk and Jenrick, to be especially aggressive.

But the familiar cycle of new policy, turn media blitz, turn political punishment for Keir Starmer in reality has rather more dire consequences for the prime minister’s own operation. The expectation creation inherent in the Conservative party’s “small boats” crackdown is now all-consuming — forcing the government into making the most of “signalling” symbols like the Bibby Stockholm.

So right now, it seems the more aggressive the government becomes on areas like small boats, the more overtly it exposes its long-term political miscalculations. 

Before small boats week, just 9 per cent of voters surveyed by YouGov said they had confidence that the government will reduce the number of asylum seekers crossing the channel in small boats. Just 1 per cent felt “very confident”. One wonders how the political capital shoved at the issue since Monday has altered these ratings. 

Ultimately, in the wake of small boats week failure on the government’s own terms — any forthcoming spin aside — seems more and more guaranteed.