Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Blame the Government for the passport crisis - not the Home Secretary

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At one point in today’s exchanges on the Great Passport Crisis the intimidating figure of Labour’s Sir Gerald Kaufman – brandishing an email “sent in the past hour” by a constituent forced to cancel her family’s flights abroad and lose a “great deal of money” – asked what  Theresa May was going to do about “the total mess” she had caused for them. “I am sure that the Rt Hon Gentleman will be taking that matter up with ministers and the Passport Office,” she said.

Sir Gerald looked as thunderous as only he can. Understandably, since he was entitled to think that “taking the matter up with ministers” was what he had just done. 

But then Ms May’s airy attempt at reassurance was faintly reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s legendary tendency to blame the “government” for things going wrong as if it had nothing to do with her.

Though a bit less fluent and assured than usual, Ms May subtly managed to distance herself from what her opposite number, Yvette Cooper, called with undisguised glee “a sorry shambles from a sorry Department”.

True, many Labour MPs seemed delighted to find an ideologically safe, Daily Mail-infuriating issue to be indignant about. Most Tory backbenchers welcomed the new measures – free upgrades for those urgently needing to travel, one year extensions for expats, emergency travel documents for children – suggesting that Ms May’s future leadership hopes remain intact. 

But when the Tory, Christopher Chope, asked her how “urgent “would be defined, she referred him to the Passport Office website. Since this suggests you will get a passport in three weeks that wasn’t that reassuring.

There were puzzles – like why the sudden surge in people wanting to leave the country which May kept stressing. Helpfully, Tory Henry Smith had a constituent who needed a passport because “for the first time since 2008 they could afford to go on holiday”. But that can hardly be the only reason, since demand was last as high as this 12 years ago. 

Ms May said that 250 “back-office” passport staff were being transferred to “front-line operations”. Which left you wondering what they do normally in the back office. Setting the famous “Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State… requests… all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely…” to music? Writing a history of the passport from 5th-century Persian times? Or analysing the mysterious surge in passport demand instead of meeting it?