The Home Office is known with good reason as the graveyard of political ambitions. Despite being one of the great offices of state, just two Home Secretaries have gone on to gain the ultimate prize of Downing Street.
Theresa May, who is about to become the longest-serving holder of the post for half a century, appears to have bucked the trend. Polls last week showing she had eclipsed Boris Johnson as party activists’ choice to succeed David Cameron as Tory leader underlined how she had enhanced her political standing during her time at the department, building a reputation for calm competence combined with steely determination.
But a lot has changed in the 11 days since the survey was published. Mrs May, the MP for Maidenhead, has been embroiled in a damaging spat with a Cabinet colleague, lost one of her closest advisers and found herself at odds with Downing Street over the use of water cannon on British streets.
Worst of all, her department has been caught unawares by the fiasco over passport renewals, culminating in the disclosure that 30,000 applications remained unprocessed – days after it insisted there was no backlog. Suddenly the Home Office, an apparent model of efficiency under Mrs May’s conscientious leadership, appears to have run into the choppy waters that bedevilled her Labour predecessors.
One official admitted there has been a “sense of panic” in recent days as ministers and civil servants face up to the scale of the crisis. “There have been wall-to-wall meetings trying to get to grips with this. Everyone is involved from the Home Secretary and the Permanent Secretary downwards,” said one source.
Particularly dangerous for Mrs May and her ministers is that they appeared not to have seen the crisis developing despite continued warnings. The episode has dented her image of being alive to problems looming over the horizon. One Tory MP said: “If Theresa gets on top of the problem quickly it shouldn’t do her any lasting damage. But her stock could fall if it drags on.”
The first blow to her image came a week ago when she was rebuked by Downing Street following her public falling-out with the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, over how to tackle extremism. She suffered a serious setback when she was forced to accept the resignation of her special adviser, Fiona Cunningham, over anti-Gove briefing.
Ms Cunningham and the Home Secretary were “joined at the hip”, according to one colleague, and Mrs May fought a strong battle to hold on to her trusted lieutenant.But Downing Street prevailed, much to the satisfaction of Mr Cameron’s director of communications, Craig Oliver, who had a notoriously frosty relationship with Ms Cunningham.
Days later in a chaotic television interview on a Whitehall doorstep, Mrs May appeared to blunder over water cannon. She reacted icily to Mr Johnson’s announcement that he had already bought the equipment for London. At the same time, No 10 was briefing that David Cameron had no objection in principle to their use.
As she pulls any available lever to resolve the passport crisis, the Immigration minister, James Brokenshire, has been drafted in to help. But the pair of them could soon be confronted by an equally toxic problem. The department is under acute pressure from No 10 to ensure new immigration legislation, including an “NHS levy” for foreign patients, is introduced smoothly.
If the Home Office fails, Mrs May’s final months in the job before the election could prove particularly uncomfortable.