Theresa May: déjà vu all over again

[I appeared briefly on Newsnight commenting on this – the item is about 20 mins in].

A British Home Secretary faces a media firestorm over a major blunder in one of the Home Office’s Executive Agencies. A senior agency official is blamed to shift attention away from Ministers. He resigns and hits back, hard and sues the Home Office and wins.

Theresa May (Home Secretary) and  Brodie Clarke (UK Borders Agency)? Well yes, but it could also be Michael Howard (Home Secretary) and Derek Lewis (Director General of the Prison Service) back in 1995.

Mrs May’s problems relate to letting them in, Mr Howard’s to letting them out. After some rather embarrassing escapes by maximum security prisoners Mr Howard sacked Derek Lewis, blaming him for the fiasco. Mr Lewis a former TV chief executive, knew his way around the media and launched a ferocious assault on Mr Howard. And he did indeed sue – winning all his contract wages and his performance bonuses.

Mr Howard claimed “it was not him guv” on the grounds that Lewis was responsible for ‘operational issues’. But the year Lewis was sacked he had met his target on prisons escapes (a very big reduction). What the target on escapes – set by Howard – said was that they should be reduced overall. Nothing about maximum security prisoners. Only belatedly, about a year later, was the target changed to “no category A (maximum security) prisoners be allowed to escape’ and, to paraphrase, a percentage of the rest can get away.

(I know about all this in great detail because I was appointed to the subsequent Review of the Prison Service management).

So at the very least Howard and Lewis must have shared responsibility, whilst some (like Howard’s prison minister Anne Widdecombe) thought that Howard should have taken the blame.

So are we going to see a re-run? Will Theresa May get ‘kebabed’ on Newsnight by Jeremy Paxman? I very much doubt that – it is seared into the psyche of every Tory MP. And so far Mrs May is doing a very good impersonation of the Invisible Woman.

There are further parallels though. For example the Mrs May has claimed she didn’t have to tell the Cabinet, or Prime Minister, or Parliament about the ‘pilot’ change to immigration checks because they were merely ‘operational’. But if they were merely ‘operational’ then on her predecessors definition ‘operational’ matters were the responsibility of the Agency, not the Home Secretary. So which was it – a policy decision (Minister) or operational matter (Agency)? Mrs May seems to want ‘to have her cake and eat it’.

One irony in all this is that the UK Borders Agency is now being criticized for being ‘too autonomous’. Back in the early 1990s when the Home Office was being carved up into agencies four were established – Prisons, Forensic Science, Fire Service College and Passports. Only one obvious candidate, the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) forerunner of the UKBA, was left out. Why? Because at the time Ministers thought IND was dysfunctional and needed be kept ‘close’. A decade later the then Labour Home Secretary John Reid declared IND ‘not fit for purpose’ and initiated converting it into – guess what? – an agency, which was supposed to cure the problem. Now the UKBA is being criticized for being too ‘arms-length’.

UKBA certainly has problems – the Home Affairs Select Committee has been holding unprecedented 3-monthly hearings with its management. In these circumstances you would have thought Mrs May would have been ‘all over’ UKBA. So how did she not notice what was going on? She certainly hasn’t covered herself in glory – clearly being unaware of simple things like whether the ‘pilot’ covered all airports or just some.

Mr Howard survived, although it came back to haunt him later and ruined his first attempt to become Tory leader. So Theresa may, or may not, end up going. But this one could well ‘run and run’.

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