Liz Truss has vowed to keep the Royal Navy in charge of patrolling the Channel to combat illegal migrants after it was revealed that it planned to withdraw from the role next year.
Responding to The Telegraph’s disclosure of the proposed withdrawal, the Tory leadership contender and Foreign Secretary said: “It’s an absolute priority to make sure we deal with the issue of small boats and the appalling trade by people traffickers.
“I will use every tool at my disposal if I’m selected as prime minister to make that happen.”
Asked whether this would mean the Navy continuing to perform its patrolling role, she replied: “Absolutely.”
Rishi Sunak, former chancellor and Ms Truss’s leadership rival, also pledged to ensure the Navy would play an “essential role” but stopped short of guaranteeing that it would retain its “primacy” over Channel operations.
A spokesman for Mr Sunak said: “Under Rishi’s plan, military expertise will be essential in securing control of our borders. He will introduce a taskforce to coordinate the response to every step of an illegal migrant’s journey, which will inform the planned January 2023 review of Operation Isotrope.”
The MoD said it had previously stated the Channel operation, called Isotrope, would continue until January 31 when it would be reviewed but sources went further on Monday, saying it would end unless ministers intervened.
This was confirmed on Tuesday when an MoD spokesman said: “We are working across Government to ensure the conditions are set for Defence to hand the task back to the Home Office following the review.”
It follows a separate Home Office review of Border Force by Alexander Downer, a former Australian foreign minister, which concluded that neither Border Force nor the Navy should be responsible for rescuing migrants from the Channel.
Instead, Mr Downer proposed that private vessels better suited to the task should be contracted to do it and placed under the command and control of Border Force, the Coastguard or the Royal Navy. It is understood work is underway on this option.
The number of migrant crossings has already doubled this year to more than 20,000 despite the Navy’s intervention.
The Navy’s “command and control” role has been primarily to coordinate Border Force and coastguard vessels at sea to rescue migrants and bring them ashore, with sailors deployed on the quayside to shepherd migrants to migrant processing centres.
However, there has been criticism by senior MPs from the Commons defence committee and Border Force figures that the £50 million operation has failed to stem the flow of migrants and distracted Navy resources from other duties at a time of heightened tensions with Russia.
John Spellar, former Labour armed forces minister and vice chair of the commons defence committee, told the BBC that the Navy should never have been involved in dealing with Channel crossings in the first place.
“This never made any sense but did divert Navy personnel,” he said, adding: “Increased activity in the North Atlantic from the Russians, that's what the Navy should be focused on, not this ill thought out publicity stunt.”
The MoD was handed £50 million by the Government in April to take charge of the Channel crisis with one 260-foot offshore patrol vessel to support Border Force interceptions, six fast 45-knot training boats, three rigid-hulled inflatables to shadow migrants boats and a Wildcat helicopter.
The first deployments of the vessels in “Operation Isotope” coincided with Mr Johnson unveiling plans in April to deport Channel migrants to Rwanda to claim asylum in the central African state as part of a twin track to break the business model of the people smugglers.