Norman Baker resignation: New problems at a notoriously difficult department

Inside Whitehall

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On John Reid’s first day as Home Secretary in 2006 he arrived in his new ministerial office on Marsham Street to find an A4 piece of paper stuck to the computer screen.

In large writing it said: “Always remember: THEY WILL LIE TO YOU.”

It had been written by an aide following the sacking of Mr Reid’s predecessor when it emerged that the Home Office had failed to deport a thousand foreign prisoners at the end of their sentences. And they were the civil servants with whom Mr Reid would be working.

I was reminded of this story by the fiasco over the appointment of a chairman to the Government’s historic abuse inquiry.

But it is also, for slightly different reasons, connected to yesterday’s resignation of Norman Baker and his charge that working with Theresa May was like “walking through mud”.

Of all Government departments the Home Office has long had the reputation of being a graveyard of political careers. In the 10 years to 2010 – there were six Home Secretaries two of whom had to resign and only one of whom (Jack Straw) was promoted.

Several people who worked in the Home Office during that time have said it was the most dysfunctional part of government they had ever encountered.

Civil servants were demotivated and moved too frequently to have an in-depth grasp of their brief; the department was badly led with inadequate financial and IT functions and ministers were too often kept in the dark about problems and crises until they detonated in the media.

It was against this background that Ms May took office in 2010 determined that she would not become the next political casualty. And in July she proved, in at least one sense, she had succeeded by becoming the longest serving Home Secretary since Rab Butler held the post more than half a century ago.

But she has not done this without ruffling more than a few feathers. The first permanent secretary she appointed lasted less than two years in post after falling out with Ms May while others have been quietly moved on.

Civil servants complain that every decision – no matter how small – has to be signed off by Ms May while junior ministers say they have little or no autonomy to act independently of their boss.

In meetings she can come across as abrupt and cold while her special advisors are feared and disliked in equal measure. “It’s not much fun being screamed at every day,” said one official who left the department.

But by any fair assessment Ms May has been a successful Home Secretary.

She has taken on the might of the Police Federation and largely won. She negotiated the legal minefield of Abu Qatada and most importantly of all she has taken the Home Office out of the headlines.

Even her critics say that she is impressive across the brief – reading everything in her red boxes and working very hard and very late to ensure she is on top of everything in the department.

And she has had a clear and unswerving idea of what she wants even if that has meant clashing publicly with David Cameron (on stop and search) or Michael Gove (on extremism). She is a tough customer with everyone.

That takes us back to Norman Baker and the uncharacteristic mess of the historic abuse inquiry.

The failure of officials to properly vet candidates for the chairmanship of the inquiry is a rare instance of old Home Office problems that Ms May has tried so hard to eliminate.

But the flip side is that Mr Baker’s resignation was caused by Ms May’s refusal to delegate responsibility or be collegiate – because to her survival equates to control.

In short, the Home Office still has problems – they’re just different than they were in the past.