When John Reid and his Home Office ministers met for some rare thinking time last Sunday, they agreed not to give the impression there was a "quick fix" for the department's many problems. They would quietly put things right and resist the temptation to feed the media's voracious appetite with headlines - even if crackdowns and initiatives were ordered by the chief headline writer in 10 Downing Street.
Mr Reid's self-denial lasted two days. On Tuesday, he gave what aides described as a "10-minute interview" to the Daily Mirror, supposedly about the knives amnesty to be launched the next day. But the defiant Home Secretary, sleeves rolled up, succumbed to temptation by announcing that a masterplan on immigration would be produced in 100 days and saying: "I'll f****** well work 18 hours a day to sort this out." The Mirror's front-page headline was: "I am The Enforcer."
By the time I read the interview, a colleague had sellotaped a new headline on to it - "I am The Bungler"- because, within hours of publication, the Home Secretary admitted he had got some figures about the foreign prisoners fiasco wrong to a Commons committee the previous day, when he launched a remarkable attack on his new department's performance.
I suspect Mr Reid will be more restrained when giving interviews in future. You don't need to chase headlines at the Home Office. Stuff happens. Jack Straw quips that, when he was there, he would sometimes wake up to five stories about it on the radio - and would know nothing about any of them.
Why is it such a difficult, if not impossible, job? For a start, you don't get much credit from your department's clients, who include criminals, prisoners and asylum-seekers. Decisions taken by junior, relatively low-paid officials in sections with a high turnover such as the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) can cause endless ministerial grief.
The ministers were right to agree last weekend that they cannot possibly micro-manage such a huge department. All they could do was set the overall strategy in problem areas and let officials get on with it. "It's like walking into a massive house and entering rooms that no one has been in for years; you never know what you are going to find," said one participant.
In the current feeding frenzy, everything the Home Office does is magnified by the media. Mistakes that would not normally warrant much attention make the front pages and television bulletins. Not many organisations could withstand such scrutiny.
That the Home Office is so unwieldy is the fault of Tony Blair, who has repeatedly declined to split it up to make it more manageable. His best opportunity came in 2003 when the new Department for Constitutional Affairs nicked a few Home Office functions but should have been turned into a fully fledged Ministry of Justice. It didn't happen because David Blunkett wouldn't allow Mr Blair to take away half his empire. We are now witnessing the consequences of another botched reshuffle.
Inside the Home Office, it was an open secret that the IND was in dire need of reform. In 2001, one bright adviser proposed a complete overhaul, but was told to produce "sticking plaster solutions". He left.
With daily headlines about the Sangatte camp near Calais, a negligible number of failed asylum-seekers being removed from Britain and race riots in Northern towns, Mr Blunkett judged the top priority was to get a grip on asylum, and that turning the IND upside-down would delay progress. He feared the asylum issue could cost Labour the 2005 election - a plausible view given the campaign the Tories went on to wage and Mr Blair was able to repel.
Whitehall's excuse for the foreign prisoners crisis - that IND was concentrating on asylum - doesn't really wash. It should have been able to handle both.
Mr Reid may now have the breathing space to reform IND that Mr Blunkett lacked. It could become an arms-length executive agency headed by managers from the private sector. That model is working for the Passports Service, another branch of Home Office plc which once attracted terrible headlines but now wins plaudits for customer service.
Wider reform will probably have to await the arrival in No. 10 of Gordon Brown, who has hinted he might set up an American-style homeland security department to handle terrorism.
Would Mr Reid ever stand against Mr Brown for the leadership? His friends don't rule it out, but are probably just tweaking the Chancellor's tail. When he is in a black mood about Mr Brown, Mr Blair sometimes wonders whether he is the right man to succeed him. But all his potential "stop Gordon" candidates - Mr Blunkett, Alan Milburn, Charles Clarke - have fallen by the wayside.
When ultra-Blairites talked up Mr Reid three weeks ago, he shot himself in the foot by branding all Blair critics Old Labour dinosaurs. Few Labour MPs would vote for Mr Reid now and so he won't run.
In any case, he has more than enough on his plate. Can he turn the Home Office tanker round? Mr Reid is a hard man to please and his civil servants are in no mood to be made scapegoats. He needs them onside, and some tough love is in order. But if anyone can turn it round, he can.Reuse content