Theresa May's 'Murdoch' Defence: Can the Public Respect Her Now?

21/11/2011 00:31 GMT | Updated 20/01/2012 10:12 GMT

Theresa May's appalling handling of the whole Borders Agency muddle over the last fortnight shows she has a touch of James Murdoch about her.

She's used all the Murdoch defence lines. First off there was the 'rogue' line. It was all a rogue civil servant's fault, poor old Mr Brodie Clark. Then it was the 'I was not made aware' defence.

It's always a difficult line for a minister to take. After all, it suggests that Theresa May was not just gloriously unaware of what was happening around the airports and ports of the UK, but that she had so little interest in the operational details of the matter that she was actually wilfully blind. When you consider that Damian Green, the immigration minister, visited Calais only three weeks ago, it seems bizarre in the extreme that he didn't bother to ask anyone what had been going on.

Theresa even tried the 'my staff have really let me down' line. That's why Brodie Clark was suspended and his reputation trashed in the media and in parliament before any investigation had taken place. It's why the draft report on his suspension was leaked to the Daily Mail. All so as to protect the precious Home Secretary from the implication that it might actually have been her original trial that was at fault.

But as with News International, the problem for Theresa May lies in the detail. Last week the media decided that the main issue was relaxing checks - including finger print tests - on visas for non EEA citizens.

Should Brodie Clark turn out to have gone too far in lifting visa and fingerprint checks, then, they concluded, the Home Secretary would be off the hook.

But more importantly, there is much more to this than fingerprints. Indeed the Home Secretary herself told parliament of her concern about the number of times checks on European citizens were relaxed without her authority.

She should be concerned. It turns out over 500 European entrants were stopped or returned at our borders last summer - perhaps because of passport problems or concerns about criminal activity. Yet checks on EEA citizens were relaxed 260 times in one week alone, and managers were clearly under pressure to go further whenever there were queues rather than ask for more staff.

The Home Secretary told the commons in her original statement that biometric tests on EEA nationals were abandoned routinely "without ministerial approval". But Theresa May did indeed give approval for these checks to be lifted. In fact she admitted that the key operational instructions which explicitly ditch routine checks were in line with her policy.

It looks strongly as if the Home Secretary licensed a major downgrade of border checks on EEA citizens without any clue what she signed up for and without any attempt to keep rack of what was happening.

What is still fishy about this whole business is that the Home Secretary refuses to publish either the emails between Brodie Clark and Rob Whiteman which could clear up the fairness, or otherwise of Mr Clark's treatment - or indeed the instructions that she provided to officials.

In the end Theresa May has used the Plimsoll line strategy of throwing someone overboard just as the Home Office is taking on water, just to keep her own feet dry. I suspect most people will not respect or trust her for that. After all, if her experiment with relaxed border controls was so brilliantly successful, why has she suspended it?

The kindest interpretation of all is that Her Majesty's Secretary of State for the Home Department and her Immigration Minister did not have a single clue as to what was taking place at our borders. Worse than that, they chose not to know, thus abrogating all responsibility for this critical issue and failing in what we expect from our or any government.

Whether the truth will ever fully come out of the employment tribunals, the Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry, the internal inquiries and the inquiry of John Vine, I think the public can already make up their own mind - a Home Secretary who hides from her responsibilities whether in border security, levels of crime or policing is neither use nor ornament.

She may have survived the media frenzy, but whether she should survive the true test of a Home Secretary - of keeping us safe, of firm, fair and responsible handling in a crisis, of being a credible leader in that endeavour and of sticking up for those who seek to protect us - is a different matter and, as with James Murdoch, only time will tell.