It sounds like a plot line from a television satire on the banana-skin-strewn corridors of the Westminster village. Tough immigration minister is exposed employing an illegal immigrant as his cleaner. Except that the person responsible for the exposure was, in fact, the minister. Mark Harper has not been hoist with his own petard; he did his own hoisting, which is why his resignation from Cabinet is a matter of good form rather than a humiliation.
The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has already made clear that this is a temporary leave of absence. Nor has the Opposition reacted to Mr Harper’s embarrassment with the kind of glee one might expect from a situation replete with ironic possibilities. Labour’s Keith Vaz spoke of Mr Harper’s “impressive legacy” and good humour. Mr Harper has indeed behaved with commendable honour in quitting his post with so little fuss. When Baroness Scotland was fined in 2009 for breaking immigration laws that she had helped to frame, she clung like grim death to her post as Attorney General, and with the support of Gordon Brown.
However, with all respect for Mr Harper’s decency in resigning, we should not forget that the policies he promoted as minister were sometimes anything but. Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, struck the right note when she said it wasn’t the politician who ought to go but Britain’s “nasty immigration politics”, for which Mr Harper is part-responsible. The execrable “go home” campaign, which was Mr Harper’s personal brainwave, managed the feat of being nasty, silly and ineffective, all at the same time. A bigger issue is Britain’s wearying, negative obsession with immigrants generally, which is starting to make us a laughing stock, but which Mr Harper encouraged.
More specifically, Mr Harper’s dubious legacy includes the Immigration Bill, which he was piloting through Parliament. Some points in the Bill are relatively uncontroversial, such as the proposal to cut the number of appeals against deportation and introduce closer checks on migrants seeking to marry or enter civil partnerships, to ensure these rights are not abused. Few will dispute the notion that migrants with only temporary status should contribute to any NHS care that they require.
However, the requirement that landlords should be held responsible for checking the immigration status of people they house is not only impractical but repugnant. Internal border checks of this type may be common in some European countries with more authoritarian traditions than our own but it is deeply depressing to think of their becoming part of the British way of life.
While Mr Harper awaits the all-but-inevitable call to return to Cabinet, Labour should look harder than it has done at the flawed Bill that he was advocating – whose terms even he found it difficult to abide by. In recent months, the Opposition has sounded as if it is trying to be even tougher than the Tories on immigration, and it has given the Bill an easier ride than it deserves. This is an opportunity for Labour to pause and rethink where it is going on this matter, and one it should seize.