The Liberal Democrats claimed victory last night after Conservative ministers abandoned plans to revive their controversial “go home or face arrest” advertising campaign on illegal immigration.
Theresa May, the Home Secretary, insisted that she took the decision to drop the mobile advan posters after a £10,000 pilot scheme. Labour claimed only one person returned to their home country as a result of the campaign but the Tories denied that.
Mrs May told MPs: “What I've done is look at the interim evaluation in relation to the plans - and there were some returns achieved as a result of that. Politicians should be willing to step up to the plate and say when they think something actually hasn't been as good an idea, and I think they were too blunt an instrument.”
But Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat Home Office Minister appointed this month, said he had “made clear” that the campaign was unacceptable and should not be rolled out nationwide. A Lib Dem source said: “The vans may well not have been very effective, but they were stopped because of Norman.”
An aide to Mrs May replied: “Theresa saw an interim evaluation which didn’t convince her of future roll-out. It was absolutely nothing to do with Baker.”
The Home Secretary’s decision came as a surprise because Mark Harper, the Immigration Minister, said last Thursday that the ads could be extended nationwide. He also said the scheme would be reviewed for three months to give immigrants time to return home. On Saturday, The Independent reported that the Lib Dems would veto a national campaign.
Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, told Mrs May during fierce Commons exchanges she should take responsibility for the "complete failure" of the poster.
"You agreed to that slogan," she said. "And you agreed to send it round communities whose parents heard it from the National Front in the 1970s and whose British citizens work in our public services, build our businesses and fight in our armed forces today. You signed this policy off, you defended it. You should be better than that. I hope you are ashamed of what you did. You should confirm that you will never pursue such divisive gimmicks again. It is beneath you and it ought to be beneath this government."
Tim Farron, the Lib Dem president, said: “This is a failed project and the Home Office should hold their hands up and admit it was wrong both practically and morally. It is important that our borders are protected and secure but this policy - driving a van around some of the most diverse communities in London - is not the way to deliver that."
The campaign prompted 224 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority, which ruled that the poster was misleading because of the number of arrests quoted applied to a wider area that it implied. But it did not judge that the ad was racist.