The day after her fatal appearance before Yvette Cooper’s Home Affairs Select Committee, as the controversy raged over her denial that the Home Office sets deportation targets, Amber Rudd kept a long-scheduled lunch appointment.
Attending a Parliamentary Press Gallery event demands self-deprecation from the guest speaker, and in spite of everything Rudd delivered.
She told of trying to use her title to settle an old score, having spotted “one of those classic mean girls” from school across the room at a party in her constituency.
“I went up and said, ‘Hi Johanna’,” Rudd told the parliamentary press pack. “She looked me up and down and said: ‘Still messy.’”
Johanna can be pretty happy with the standard of her analysis. Everything about Rudd’s excruciatingly slow departure from Cabinet has been messy: the ‘hostile environment’ immigration policy; the work of the Home Office and its officials; Rudd’s own management of the unfolding Windrush crisis; and the fallout for the government and the Conservatives.
Sajid Javid has been given the clear-up job. The significance of his appointment shouldn’t be lost amid the controversy surrounding Rudd’s resignation: he is the first person from a minority background to hold one of the ‘Great Offices of State’. The son of a Pakistani Muslim who arrived in the UK at the same time as many of the Windrush generation is now in charge of the Prevent strategy and stop and search, as well as immigration.
He necessarily brings a different perspective to a department blindsided by the news that thousands of British nationals were being stripped of their rights through the normal process of immigration policy. In his first outing at the dispatch box, Javid said that under different circumstances, “it could have been my mum, my dad, my uncle, or even me”. Many already expect that the treatment of UK residents from Commonwealth countries beyond the Caribbean will be the next shoe to drop.
But does Javid actually have the appetite to drain the swamp at the Home Office? The department is a graveyard of political careers. Theresa May has been the exception (and look how well it’s gone) but her predecessors have been far more likely to resign, be sacked or face demotion than move into the top job.
Rudd demonstrated what happens when you start turning over rocks and peering into dusty closets at the Home Office. Javid, who was unlucky to tie himself to Stephen Crabb’s 2016 leadership bid, will now be considered a contender to succeed May before the next election, just as one of the likely front-runners has faltered. He will not want his new job to drag him down again.
Meanwhile, even as the government tries to sanitise its ‘hostile environment’ policy – a term Javid says he wants to abandon – ministers continue to defend its central principles. And while Labour are celebrating their scalp, their ability to follow up will be limited.
The opposition leadership, including Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott, can congratulate themselves on being among a handful of Labour MPs to vote against the 2014 Immigration Act, but not too loudly: the rest of their colleagues either abstained or backed it. Now that the former rebel band are in charge, and given Corbyn’s natural scepticism of free movement in Europe, neither can Labour entertain talk of immigration ‘amnesties’ or a radically different approach to enforcement.
The real significance of the Windrush scandal is that it has held a mirror up to a Britain wounded by nearly two years of being told it had become illiberal and unwelcoming.
“We are not the sort of country that demands to see your papers,” was the typically rigorous and accurate response to the controversy from Jacob Rees-Mogg. Windrush has taught us that the UK is precisely the sort of country that demands to see your papers, having made it exceptionally difficult to ask for them. That has been the case for over a decade, and the UK is preparing to make similar demands of a much wider range of people.
Javid will lead that process. On the current evidence, he won’t approach the task any differently to his predecessor. The result promises to be just as messy.