Mary Dejevsky: Theresa May - another lady who's not for turning

It was striking that the MPs who were most effective in rumbling the witnesses were women

Mary Dejevsky
Friday 18 November 2011 01:00 GMT

Watching Brodie Clark and his boss, Rob Whiteman, slug it out consecutively before the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee this week was like watching a particularly delectable episode of Yes Minister smash into an especially brutish episode of The Office. From his very first syllables, Clark came across as the pedantic old-school civil servant; Whiteman as the brash, new-school manager. There could not have been a better illustration of the shifting culture at the very top of the UK government machine.

But there was something else for the observer of modern mores to savour here, too. The Home Secretary, Theresa May, might have been absent, but she was the spectre at this feast of words and manners, hovering invisibly above the committee table. You had only to hear the venom with which Clark pinned the blame on her – "Over 40 years I have built up a reputation and over two days that reputation has been destroyed, and I believe that was largely because of the contribution made by the Home Secretary" – for other, earlier, clashes to echo in your ears. Scornful references to "that woman", Margaret Thatcher – and every female executive an embittered male employee has ever known – were never far away.

Despite the infinitely greater number of women in the workplace now, despite all the investment in gender-awareness, despite the obeisance to political correctness, men and women continue to communicate in language that the other sex sometimes fails to understand. Whiteman – different background, different generation – clearly had a better appreciation that he was actually answerable to a female boss – two, in fact, as he takes instructions both from May and from Helen Ghosh, the head civil servant at the Home Office. He had grasped, as Clark perhaps had not, that rank trumps sex in today's pecking order.

But there were hints in his responses, too, that he was hidebound in his own way. Where Clark unleashed a blizzard of punctiliousness that seemed to fit right into Robert (now Lord) Armstrong's high-flying tradition of being "economical with the truth", Whiteman flashed seductive little globs of management-speak. How far did this, equally male, skill speed him to his current perch?

It was striking that the committee members most effective in rumbling the witnesses were women: Nicola Blackwood and Lorraine Fullbrook. (The same could be said of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee and its efforts to put James Murdoch of News International on the spot.) At times, they exchanged complicit glances, as they tried to identify chinks in the wall of legalistic technicality thrown up to slow their advance.

Their refusal to take his words at their apparent value clearly unsettled Clark, who – one might reasonably assume – had spent his 38 years of reproachless service perfecting a presentational technique that ensured no awkward questions were asked. It is a tell-tale signature of senior British civil servants: an ability to cloak ambiguity in faux-precision is what got our diplomats into such trouble over the second UN Security Council resolution on Iraq. It got Clark into a spot of bother at the Home Affairs Committee, too. Excess cleverness has a habit of coming back to bite.

As for why the women on these committees might be more inclined, or better equipped, to cut through the bluster, you might hazard something along these lines. They have had their own experiences of smooth talk from male managers over the years. They, too, have been addressed in superficially clever or jargon-ridden talk that says one thing, means another and stops short of an actionable lie. They, too, have had undertakings given and withdrawn – nothing in writing, "just between us", all deniable. Like Clark's briefly proffered pension.

This pension may have been the single point on which Clark has a genuine claim to public sympathy. That is no way to treat anyone. Then again, it could be seen as the old – word as bond – school being eviscerated by the new. Clark knew how to survive in the old world, even if the words had just as tenuous a relationship to reality, but he lacked the type of guile needed to operate in the new.

Whatever is said about Theresa May, she is a minister who had, until the UK Border Agency controversy blew up, far exceeded the – unjustifiably – modest expectations that attended her appointment. She does not give the impression of being easily strong-armed or bamboozled into doing what she does not want to do. Nor does she seem devoid of old-fashioned common sense. Double-speak and jargon are not her style.

Which is why it is not hard to see that she might have regarded Brodie Clark as a particularly alien species – almost a caricature of the old-school, male civil servant. And as the hearing progressed, it was possible to sift some wheat from the chaff. Clark, as head of the Border Force, appears to have proposed a trial of three measures to help his operation cope with staff cuts. May approved two of these, but not the third – the lifting of fingerprint checks on non-European citizens.

What she seems not to have known, and Clark seems not to have spelt out, is that this was already happening, under separate provisions designed to address unmanageable queues. Perhaps Clark wanted to "legitimise" this relaxation by bringing it into the trial. Rightly, though, gauging the public mood, May decreed this a liberalisation too far. You can imagine her wrath when she discovered that fingerprint checks were being regularly lifted anyway, and it was she who was expected to carry the can.

Controlling the national border is one of the most basic functions of government, which is why the creation of the UK Border Agency – with its labyrin-thine management – was so misguided, as though border security can or should be kept at a distance from government. I am infuriated and ashamed in equal measure, whenever I leave and re-enter the country, to see how poorly presented and organised our border is compared with pretty much anywhere I have come from. Change waits, apparently, on something called E-borders, which – like all government computer systems – is late and, reputedly, inadequate for the job.

After she took office, May began, quietly, bringing some UKBA responsibilities back into the Home Office. Regrettably, she has not exploited the latest furore to stamp her designer-shod foot and dismantle the whole dysfunctional edifice. She should be woman enough to bang those quarrelsome men's heads together and re-establish border controls worthy of the name.

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