Priti Patel has been disinvited from a meeting about the Channel boats crisis after Boris Johnson called on France to take back people who have made the perilous journey in small boats.
As the blame game over the deaths of 27 people off the coast of Calais escalates, the French interior minister – Gérald Darmanin – has written to the home secretary to say a meeting on Sunday would continue without British involvement.
The latest diplomatic blow-up was sparked by an open letter sent to President Emmanuel Macron by Johnson on Thursday night, in which he set out five suggestions to avoid a repeat of Wednesday’s tragedy. The letter was shared on Twitter in time to make the front pages of UK newspapers.
The prime minister’s proposals included joint patrols in the Channel from next week, a “bilateral readmissions agreement to allow all illegal migrants who cross the Channel to be returned” and “deploying more advanced technology including ground sensors and radar”.
Writing on Twitter, Johnson added: “If those who reach this country were swiftly returned, the incentive for people to put their lives in the hands of traffickers would be significantly reduced.
“This would be the single biggest step we could take together to reduce the draw to Northern France and break the business model of criminal gangs.
“I am confident that by taking these steps and building on our existing cooperation we can address illegal migration and prevent more families from experiencing the devastating loss we saw yesterday.”
French anger was clear within hours of Johnson’s letter being published online.
“We consider the British prime minister’s public letter unacceptable and counter to our discussions between partners,” Darmanin said in a statement. “As a result Priti Patel is no longer invited,” he added.
‘We are not whistleblowers’
And, in a press conference on Friday morning, Macron said he was “surprised” by Johnson’s decision to communicate with him in such a way, because it was “not serious”.
“We do not communicate from one leader to another on these issues by tweets and letters that we make public. We are not whistleblowers,” he said.
Johnson’s proposals were dismissed by French government spokesman Gabriel Attal, who said it was “clearly not what we need to solve this problem”.
He said the prime minister’s letter “doesn’t correspond at all” with discussions Johnson and Macron had when they spoke on Wednesday. “We are sick of double-speak,” he said.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps insisted Johnson’s proposals were made in “good faith”, and appealed to the French to reconsider their decision to withdraw the invitation to Patel.
“I think it is really important that we work hand-in-glove with the French. I don’t think there is anything inflammatory to ask for close co-operation with our nearest neighbours,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
“The proposal was made in good faith. I can assure our French friends of that and I hope that they will reconsider meeting up to discuss it.”