Second only to promising to slash immigration, pledges to bang up then rapidly deport foreign criminals – preferably in the teeth of opposition from woolly-minded liberals – offer a sure path to the hearts of the Tory faithful.
No surprise then that, as Tory poll ratings remain in the doldrums, the Home Secretary should now flag up her determination to slay the dragon of wishy-washy judges who, she says, “frustrate government policy and prevent the deportation of criminals”, and who she intends to spear with “explicit parliamentary legislation”.
What form this legislation will take, no one knows. One wonders if Theresa May herself knows. With more passion than substance she says only that, through what sounds like the blunt instrument of the law, she will stop judges from interpreting Article Eight of the European Convention on Human Rights – which grants foreigners rights to remain in the UK on the basis of a “right to a family life” – in the same lenient fashion that they apparently have been doing. The Home Office has also declined to provide hard information, beyond saying that all should become clear in the Queen’s Speech in May, which gives the Home Secretary a few months to work out how she intends to flesh this one out. Ms May’s supporters maintain she has consistently made it clear that she intends to take a more robust approach than her predecessors in sending foreign criminals back where they came from. While she makes a lot of noise about this subject, she doesn’t have much form, however, as shown by the fiasco last spring over the deportation of Abu Qatada. Unable to resist the temptation to trumpet in advance the deportation of the Islamist preacher, before she had, in fact, achieved anything, she gave him time to lodge a last-minute appeal against his return to Jordan for trial. He is still here, although Ms May no longer seems interested in giving the public regular updates of her handling of the case.
A wise minister would have kept quiet about such a sensitive, fought-over matter, at least until Mr Qatada had touched down in Amman. The problem with Ms May is that she always seems to be trying to run a key government department and an unofficial election campaign at the same time. The Qatada debacle is not an isolated example of her propensity to play politics in a slippery fashion with loaded subjects.
The minister who regularly lays into Labour for having let the immigration door swing wide open, unguarded, was the same minister who cut back on border controls in an ill-fated pilot scheme, as well as slashing staffing levels in the UK Border Agency, only to throw all the blame at the Border Agency Chief, Brodie Clark, once the potentially damaging consequences of the scheme came to light.
Ms May’s boss, David Cameron, must be watching her manoeuvres with mixed feelings. The Prime Minister undoubtedly needs a Home Secretary who can deliver something on immigration and deportation, if only to deflect Tory anger about his pursuit of such an alien, liberal cause as gay marriage.
At the same time, it will not have escaped his notice that Ms May seems to be permanently engaged in signalling to the party that she might well be a better leader of the Conservatives than he is.
If it turns out that Ms May has yet again been in the business of raising great expectations without having much to show for it – beyond having given a little lift to xenophobes – Mr Cameron will have every reason to wonder if she is in the right post.