1. DEBT OF HONOUR
In her letter to the departing Amber Rudd last night, Theresa May included the telling phrase ‘as a former Home Secretary myself…’ And it is May’s own, long tenure at the Home Office that is now firmly in the firing line as the Windrush scandal continues to cause shockwaves across British politics. The Prime Minister certainly has a lot more on her plate than merely deciding who should be handed the poisoned chalice of the job she once occupied. Our snap HuffPost Verdict on the resignation is HERE, but today the questions keep on mounting.
Rudd’s allies say her resignation (she was not forced out) suggests that there is at least some sense of honour left in Westminster. She says she was quitting after ‘inadvertently’ misleading Parliament over the policy of forced deportations and targets. But on the wider issue, it was obvious she felt a sense of responsibility for not having had enough of an oversight of her department or of the Windrush detail. “I didn’t see it as a systemic issue until very recently,” is how she put it to MPs last week. Colleagues say other factors were her unease about the 100,000 migration target and that wider Home Office culture of failing to show discretion to individual cases.
Downing Street has been as tin-eared on this whole awful episode as the Home Office. It was exactly two weeks ago that No.10 ruled out a meeting with Commonwealth leaders to discuss Windrush, only having to rapidly reverse the decision. And it will be worried by the verdict overnight of 60-year-old Anthony Bryan (50 years in UK rewarded with five weeks in a detention centre), one of the first people interviewed in the Guardian: “I feel like I helped bring down the Home Secretary. I feel sorry for her in a sense because it looks like she is taking the punishment for Theresa May”. Expect that to be quoted again and again in the Commons today.
Will May have the honesty to admit what many suspect: that in her drive to cut immigration she failed in a basic duty of care to those who had lived here for much of their lives? Her own Home Office had warned of the 2014 Immigration Bill that “some non-UK born older people may have additional difficulties in providing original documentation”. A risk assessment of her 2013 Right To Rent scheme, to get landlords to monitor migrants, warned it “may provoke discrimination against those perceived to be a higher risk based on an unfounded belief that the person may be a foreign national”.
The PM herself is not expected to make a Commons statement on Rudd or Windrush today, despite Labour’s demands. She appears to be refusing to answer detailed questions about her own culpability, although the Home Affairs Committee will surely demand its own forensic questioning session. The PM risks looking cynical, robotic and, yes, callous. Adding cowardice to the charge sheet will be even worse. But with the danger of more cases of Commonwealth citizens being mistreated by the system, the most honourable thing she could do would be to agree to demands for a judge-led inquiry into the failures to date.
A quick bill securing both citizenship rights and compensation for those affected would be another way to show good faith. Yet it is the debt of honour to the Windrush generation that May most needs to repay. One lasting legacy would be for Rudd’s successor to oversee that “change of culture” at the Home Office that she promised only last Monday. Rudd wanted to allow more “time, more focus, more resources so there can be more engagement with individuals rather than just numbers”.
It’s not clear if her colleagues are listening. Cabinet minister Chris Grayling was sent out to do the morning media round and had all the sunny disposition of an undertaker, trying to play down the death in the family. He told the Today programme the ‘unwanted noise’ of Cabinet resignations should not distract from the Government’s good works. But if the Prime Minister just sticks her fingers in her ears on Windrush, her entire Government and party may pay the price. Not just this week but in coming years.
Of all the four major Cabinet resignations (Fallon, Patel, Green, Rudd, five if you include Greening) since last June, not a single one has been about Brexit. And on this unseasonably cold day, it’s worth remembering that what chills May’s bones more than anything else is the prospect of such a resignation, particularly any walkout by a high profile Brexiteer who may spark a wider mutiny that could lead to her downfall. On the night of the disastrous snap election results, she was terrified that either Boris Johnson or David Davis could move against her.
Amber Rudd does indeed know every bit of detail of those inner ‘war Cabinet’ meetings on the Brexit talks, every position paper, every debating point made by colleagues. On the big issues like staying in the customs union, avoiding a hard border in Northern Ireland and keeping EU migration access roughly similar, she can now speak publicly with authority. She knows more than anyone just how badly or well prepared the Home Office is for the registration of three million EU nationals due post-Brexit, and whether a Windrush-style set of injustices is a remote possibility.
The question is just how loyal Rudd wants to be. Will she be as outspoken as former ministers Nicky Morgan or Anna Soubry and sit on the ‘naughty step’ of Remainers in the far corner of the Tory backbenches? Or will she prefer the Justine Greening approach of keeping her counsel to ensure a return to the frontbench at some point in the future? History suggests she will combine loyalty to the PM with pointed attacks on Brexiteers. After May’s disastrous conference speech, she was the first to spring to her feet, ordering Boris to do the same.
Today, Brexit is very much on the agenda, amid claims of fresh tensions between David Davis and the PM’s chief Brexit official Olly Robbins (tensions denied by DD’s team). Given the need to rally behind May, she could well win her battle in the Cabinet Brexit sub-committee this week to stick to her twin options of a customs partnership and streamlined customs arrangement. More worrying for her is the House of Lords, which tonight will almost certainly vote for a ‘Grieve-plus’ amendment to give Parliament the right to say what kind of Brexit deal it wants. Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer says: “This is one of the most important amendments of the entire Brexit process - and indeed of the Parliament.” That all depends on how much Rudd’s backbench presence stirs fellow MPs into voting the same way next month.
3. RESHUFFLE KERFUFFLE
A fifth of May’s ‘new’ Cabinet have now quit since the snap general election in June 2017. That’s an attrition rate that really puts pressure on the need to find quality replacements from lower down the ranks. With few ministers of state ready to step up to Cabinet so quickly, the PM is running out of road.
We will find out today who replaces Rudd in one of the toughest and most senior jobs in Government. To paraphrase Gordon Brown, it’s no time for a novice. The simplest option, and one most in keeping with May’s usual risk-averse approach to politics, would be to install Karen Bradley from Northern Ireland. She’s barely had time to get working in Ulster but has kept the DUP happy and gained invaluable security experience. Most important of all, her loyalty is unquestionable (and she’s a female former Remainer). It’s possible, just possible, that her predecessor James Brokenshire could return to his old job.
Sajid Javid would be the first BAME Home Secretary, and is passionate about the Tories winning back minority ethnic voters (see below) after the Windrush scandal (UPDATE: he has indeed got the job). His Housing Secretary brief, itself the issue that May says will define her premiership, could go to Liz Truss (UPDATE: Brokenshire has got the job). Brandon Lewis would have been a natural replacement, but his role in the deportations targets as immigration minister makes that difficult. His performance on Marr, misquoting Yvette Cooper, was a further unnecessary misstep. One further option for promotion was Ben Wallace, the security minister who is totally trusted by May with his brief (though his closeness to Boris Johnson’s leadership team in 2016 may always linger in the PM’s mind).
Michael Gove would have dearly loved the job, colleagues believe, but has a fraught history with May over radicalisation in Birmingham schools. David Lidington would be a safe choice, yet his European expertise has been crucial to the PM in coordinating Brexit across Government. Jeremy Hunt would be another strong option, but he has vowed to make sorting out social care his own priority. One truly innovative option would be to try to defuse Remainer rebellions by giving either Nicky Morgan or Dominic Grieve the job.
4. DOING THEIR JOB
Twelve long years after former Labour Home Secretary John Reid described the Home Office as ‘not fit for purpose’, it’s been striking just how willing officials have been prepared to leak documents in recent weeks. Civil servants have taken risks following anger that they were getting the blame for what was ultimately a political direction and choice taken by ministers. While no one would suggest officials are blameless, one final straw may have been the suggestion that the civil service was to blame for not putting a memo in Rudd’s ministerial red box to alert her to the regional targets pushed in her name.
What has been just as striking is how Parliament did its job too in holding power to account. The Home Affairs Committee played a crucial role in extracting answers (and non-answers) on the detail that Rudd and May more easily brushed aside on the floor of the House. It was the forensic questioning, and follow-ups, in the committee rooms – rather than the theatrical cut and thrust of the main Commons chamber – where the real damage was done on the targets issue.
Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to raise a Windrush cash in PMQs a few weeks ago underlined he was a different kind of Labour leader and wanted to change the tone on immigration. He and Diane Abbott had the extra moral authority that they had opposed the 2014 Immigration bill (Shadow minister Andrew Gwynne admitted yesterday it had been a mistake for Labour to abstain) and warned of the impact on those who ‘look like immigrants’. Demanding urgent Questions, pushing and harrying, Corbyn and Abbott have impressed their supporters.
Yet perhaps the key role was played by a backbencher, not a frontbencher. Tottenham MP David Lammy was the one who caught the mood of moral outrage that sparked the issue into life a fortnight ago. Combining oratory and passion with a cross-party approach to demanding change, his was the rallying cry picked up by papers like the Mail and Sun. I took part in a Radio 4 Profile programme about Lammy this weekend and pointed out some around Corbyn would like him on the shadow team. Tune in HERE to hear David’s godmother ‘auntie May’ say he could end up being PM.
5. PAYBACK TIME
With the local elections on Thursday, the timing of Rudd’s resignation could not be worse for the Tories. Many council seats up for grabs are in metropolitan areas with high minority ethnic voters, most obviously in London. As well as further undermining the party’s reputation among BAME communities, the Windrush scandal could well deter voters from all racial backgrounds who were appalled by the sense of injustice. ‘Liberal’ Conservatives, including those worried about Brexit, have yet another reason to stay at home.
Many Tory strategists are already worried about the demographic challenge facing the party. In one stark example, a council ward in Redbridge, north east London, has seen the number of ‘White British’ residents halve in just ten years, falling from 55% in 2001 to around 20% in 2011. In the Windrush era of 1951, just 0.2% of the overall British population was non-white. In 2011, it stood at 13%. And among children under 5, the figure is 30%. Of course, it’s Westminster seats as much as council ones that the impact will be felt. Former Cameron aide Lord Cooper has pointed out that in the Tories hold just one seat where the BAME population is 30 per cent or higher. Before 1987 there were no constituencies with more than 30 per cent BAME population. By the next general election, it is projected that there will be more than 120 such seats.
In the 2017 general election, the minority ethnic demographic changes arguably had more impact than the so-called ‘youthquake’. An estimated 65% of BAME voters backed Labour and the PM’s own chief of staff Gavin Barwell knows this better than most – he lost the key marginal of Croydon Central, where 38% of the population are non-white. In Kensington, Battersea, Peterborough, Reading, Bedford, other similar seats fell to Labour. Whereas Tory gains in the north and midlands were in seats with miniscule BAME communities.
Thanks to David Cameron, the Tories have succeeded in selecting some impressive minority ethnic MPs but they know the demographic challenge is huge. Add to that the inevitable sense of decay around a government that will have been in power for 12 years by the time of the 2022 election, and it’s clear why life could get very difficult. However, there is one ray of sunshine for the PM. Despite everything, the Tories are defying the usual laws of political gravity and are neck and neck with Labour after seven years of being in office. It’s not hard for Labour to get another hung Parliament, but it will need a major electoral shift to win the 60 seats it requires for Corbyn to become PM.
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