Saturday, November 12, 2011

Theresa May faces long-drawn-out demise

To kick off this week’s column, here are a couple of questions for political anoraks with long memories or people who were paying attention in school history lessons.

Number One: Who was the last British politician to move directly from the office of Secretary of State for the Home Department to that of First Lord of Treasury and Prime Minister?

Number Two: What do Reginald Maudling, Kenneth Baker, Charles Clarke and Jacqui Smith all have in common?

The answer to the first question is Viscount Palmerston in 1855. The answer to the second is that all four found that the job of Home Secretary proved to be their political graveyard, the exit route out of government from once-promising careers.

Before they came to grief, at least three of the above named had previously been mentioned as potential leaders of their parties - as indeed was the current incumbent, Theresa May, when David Cameron got into difficulties over his relationship with Rupert Murdoch’s media empire earlier this summer.

But such is the extent to which the Home Office is subject to sudden
political storms which seemingly blow up out of nowhere that it is scarcely surprising that Lord Palmerston’s 156-year-old record remains intact.

Ms Smith put it well in an article this week which simultaneously expressed sisterly sympathy for Mrs May while also gently managing to twist the knife.

"What is it about the Home Office that means we’re unsurprised to see the headlines explode in a frenzy of finger pointing, accusations, leaks and denials? More than any other British political institution, it has been the mirror that reflects back to people the things they worry about most – crime and punishment, equality and injustice, homegrown terrorists, noisy neighbours."

On the face of it, the similarities between the difficulties now facing Mrs May and those that brought down Mr Clarke in 2006 are striking.

Mr Clarke had to go after the Home Office took its eye off the ball over border checks and ended up letting a small number of individuals into the country who had been convicted of crimes overseas.

Granted, we don’t yet know whether any foreign criminals have been allowed into the UK as a result of the latest relaxation of border controls that occurred on Mrs May’s watch this summer.

But since we have no idea at all who actually was allowed in, this is surely just a matter of time and chance.

The key point at issue appears to be what degree of personal responsibility Mrs May exercised over the decision to relax border checks and whether operational staff went beyond what she actually asked for.

Brodie Clarke has quit as head of the UK Border Force after being accused by the Home Secretary of doing precisely that, although he vigorously denies acting improperly.

The argument has distinct echoes of another past Home Office debacle – the sacking of Derek Lewis as head of the prison service by Michael Howard in the mid-1990s.

On that occasion Mr Howard said Mr Lewis had had full operational responsibility for deciding whether to suspend the governor of Parkhurst Prison. Mr Lewis claimed that Mr Howard had overruled him.

So where does this current story go from here? Well, unlike many Home Office firestorms, this one could prove to be a slow burner.

Mr Clark will put his side of the story in an appearance before the Home Affairs Select Committee next week that is certain to make uncomfortable listening for Mrs May.

Even more ominously for the Home Secretary, he is threatening to lodge a claim for constructive dismissal - a case which Mrs May’s Labour predecessor Alan Johnson believes he stands a good chance of winning.

My own view for what it’s worth is that Mrs May has committed two cardinal political errors which may well ultimately cost her her job.

She has attempted to blame officials rather than accept that as a minister, the buck stops with her, and has thereby admitted that she is not actually in control of her department.

As Ms Smith put it: "In British politics, it has never proven a robust defence to admit that you don’t know the numbers on immigration, or to give any impression other than that you’re in control and becoming more controlling."

The story probably still has a fair way to run, but I suspect this may ultimately prove to be the decisive word on the matter.

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