UK Politics

Theresa's Something of the Night Moment?

9 Nov 2011 at 19:02

I suppose it had to happen sooner or later. This is the Home Office, after all. The most dysfunctional government department of all, and that’s saying something. And it seems very little has changed since the days of Charles Clarke, John Reid, Jacqui Smith and Alan Johnson. The best thing one can say is that Theresa May was able to keep a lid on it for the best part of eighteen months. She even gained a reputation as a safe pair of hands and was talked of as a potential leader in waiting. But CatGate and the current scandal surrounding the UK Borders Agency have put paid to that. I imagine Ken Clarke has a wry smile on his face at the moment.

Theresa May is very clear about what happened, and her story had better remain consistent. But Brodie Clark seems equally clear. The one thing we can be sure of is this. They cannot both be right, Theresa May’s saving grace is that the chief executive of the Borders Agency backs up her story. But this does have whiffs of the Michael Howard/Derek Lewis debacle of the mid 1990s. And we all know how that ended – with Ann Widdecombe making her ‘Something of the Night’ speech and ruining Michael Howard’s leadership bid. So could there be a similar ending to this sorry tale? And if so who will be Theresa May’s Ann Widdecombe?

Well, if journalistic rumour is to be believed, it could possibly be Immigration Minister Damian Green. I’ve been told by two journalistic sources that people close to Theresa May were briefing against him over the weekend. Bad move. I imagine the briefing will have gone along the lines of “well, this is all down too Damian, you know – not on top of his brief – lets his civil servants get away with murder – Theresa then has to clear up the mess – not the first time, you know.”

The trouble is, every political journalist worth his salt knows that Theresa May has an iron grip on her ministers and nothing goes out of the Home Office without her say so. Both Lynne Featherstone and former Security Minister Pauline Neville-Jones have semi publicly complained about Theresa May’s interraction with her ministers in the past.

If these ‘off the record’ briefings have indeed happened, then if these ‘People Who Live In the Dark’ would be well advised to desist. They do their boss no favours. Indeed, they make her position more precarious than it actually need be.

In general, I think Theresa May has done a decent job. But she has a formidable opponent in Yvette Cooper, who will be keen to claim a political scalp. She should not underestimate her. Cooper has a lot of friends in the Westminster media. May doesn’t. Indeed, her weakness as a politician is that she hasn’t got a political ‘suport group’ to come to her aid in times of political crisis.

My instinct is that Theresa May will come through this because she has right on her side. She took decisive action when she discovered what was going on and that is a good thing in a politician. Some of the more hilarious attacks on the Labour benches on her stewardship of the Home Office fail to do damage because everyone knows what happened at the Home Office under the Blair and Brown governments.

But all this ilustrates the need for root and branch reform, not only in the UK Borders Agency, but the Home Office too. Both organisations have appeared dysfunctional for some time now. The shame is that this root and branch reform appears not to have got started eighteen months into this government.

Politicians always need to turn threats into opportunities. If she plays this right, Theresa May has the chance to turn a crisis into an opportunity – and that is to emerge as a stronger figure and a major player in the Cameron coalition. But she’d better be right, and be able to prove that Brodie Clark is wrong. If she can do that, she will transform the way she is viewed by many Tory backbenchers.

  • UPDATE: Theresa May’s special advisor has been on the phone to deny absolutely that any briefings against Damian Green have taken place.

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