Amber Rudd did not resign over the Windrush scandal. Arguably, a politician should have paid the price for the shameful treatment of Caribbean migrants. But that someone would have been Theresa May, the author of the “hostile environment” culture towards illegal immigrants of which Windrush was an unintended consequence.
Although it would have suited May to keep Rudd, her human shield has now removed herself. Unlike the three previous cabinet departures since last November – Sir Michael Fallon, Priti Patel and Damian Green – Rudd did not jump before she was pushed by Downing Street.
She resigned because she misled MPs during the fallout from Windrush by saying the Home Office did not have targets for deporting illegal immigrants. True, as she admitted, she was slow to realise the plight of the Windrush generation was systemic – despite six months of media coverage. But she was the architect of her own downfall and could have survived if she had handled the intense pressure better.
Rudd was surprisingly unprepared for her appearance before the Home Affairs Select Committee last Wednesday. If her team had monitored its previous session, she would have had a little time to get her lines straight on targets. Lucy Moreton, general secretary of the ISU immigration union, had told the committee that the government’s target to reduce annual net migration below 100,000 “is translated down through the operational arms of the Home Office to ... a net removals target that enforcement teams have to meet, so they are aiming to remove a certain number of individuals in any given month reported”. Was any Home Office civil servant or political adviser watching?
Rudd also made a catastrophic error when the Windrush scandal broke. During her apology to the commons, she said: “I am concerned that the Home Office has become too concerned with policy and strategy and sometimes loses sight of the individual.”
It was seen by MPs as a coded attempt to distance herself from May’s regime at the Home Office, without committing the cardinal sin of criticising the prime minister. But it was viewed by Home Office officials as an attempt to scapegoat them for implementing what their political masters wanted. It was no surprise that Rudd suffered political death by a spate of leaks showing that she had been informed about the targets for removals. The final straw came on Sunday afternoon. Preparing for yet another commons apology this afternoon, Rudd realised there were even more such Home Office documents to come out. Even if she did not admit that, they were bound to be leaked. So there was no escape.
Rudd is well-liked by Tory colleagues; many believe that following May at the Home Office was an impossible job. “Even when she was in No 10, Theresa thought she was still the home secretary,” one cabinet minister told me. Until Windrush, Rudd was seen as the most likely standard-bearer of the party’s moderate wing when the time came to choose May’s successor. In the end, Rudd’s effortless rise since becoming an MP in 2010 was halted by her own inexperience when she was suddenly caught in the eye of the storm.
Her departure is a big setback for May. It reminds us of the fragility of her premiership after a period of relative calm. It leaves many unanswered questions which, with Rudd out of the game, May will come under huge pressure to answer. How much did May know about the removal targets while she was home secretary? As a notorious micro-manager who sometimes drove her junior ministers to distraction, it is hard to believe May did not know all about them. If she did, why wasn’t Rudd sacked last Thursday when she denied their existence?
Then there is the culture that led to Windrush, fuelled by May’s obsession with a net migration target that the Tories’ Liberal Democrat partners warned them was impossible to hit. It was May who introduced the Immigration Act which put employers, landlords and public services on the front line of checking people’s status, which wrongly ensnared thousands with every right to be in the UK and presumed them guilty until proved innocent.
The loss of Rudd, a pro-EU ally of the chancellor Philip Hammond, also compounds May’s problems over Brexit. It could upset the delicate balance on the cabinet’s 11-strong Brexit subcommittee, which is split 5-5 between hardline and soft Brexiteers, with May holding the casting vote. With the group due to take a crucial decision on Wednesday on whether to seek a customs union with the EU, May can now ill afford the resignations being threatened by Brexiteer ministers who oppose her plan for a customs partnership.
However, Rudd’s departure and Windrush also hand May an opportunity – to adopt a more liberal immigration policy. Rudd was inching the government in that direction. May should allow her successor to finish the job, including granting EU migrants preferential access after Brexit compared with people from the rest of the world.
The prime minister should recognise that a majority of the cabinet are closer to Rudd’s views on immigration than hers. May should therefore remove foreign students from the net migration target and then let the discredited target itself die a natural death. She should ditch the “hostile environment” policy and remember that, as Windrush shows, the public want fairness as well as firmness.
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