Steve Richards: Demanding Theresa May's head on a plate solves nothing

Accountability must widen much further across government to include senior officials

Steve Richards@steverichards14
Thursday 10 November 2011 01:00

Here we go again. Another Home Secretary is in trouble. I cannot remember such a furore since the last Home Secretary was in trouble. When was that? David Blunkett was forced out. So was Charles Clarke. His successor, John Reid, did not last very long although he departed voluntarily. Jacqui Smith lasted for a year or so before taking an exhausted bow. Alan Johnson was next. He remained for about the same time before a general election brought about his removal.

Now Theresa May clings on. Other former Home Secretaries have clung on in a similar matter. When a prisoner escapes, there are calls for a Home Secretary to resign. When foreign prisoners are not accounted for, it is the minister's fault.

In the current drama, there are questions about the relaxation of border controls last summer. Who knew what? Who did what? We have two contradictory accounts. May insists that she instigated a narrow experimental scheme that allowed for limited relaxation of border controls and that the head of the relevant agency, Brodie Clark, went further than he should have done. Clark unequivocally denies this.

For what it is worth, because none of us knows for sure, I suspect both are convinced genuinely that they are speaking the truth. In the blurred lines of accountability that shape and deform the delivery of services in the UK, truth can take many different subjective forms.

I do not believe for one moment that May decided as a matter of self-interested calculation to lie in front of the Home Affairs Committee when she gave the most clear and detailed answers about her involvement in the chaotic chain of command. Apart from any other factors, it makes no sense for her to think the following: "I know how to get out of this. I will pretend it was that Brodie Clark chap who went against my advice when he was really following it. That will do the trick". For a start, she would be sharp enough to know Brodie Clark might have something to say on the matter.

Sure enough, Clark has had something to say. Senior officials who are liaising with Clark at the moment tell me he has evidence, including emails, showing he is wrongly vilified. He will give his side to the Home Affairs Committee next week ensuring this saga will run for some time yet.

I suspect the truth lies in those muddled lines of accountability. In theory, May makes the "strategic" decisions. Clark was responsible for the operational outcomes on the front line and seems to have been implementing several "strategic decisions" going back several years. Has he the leeway to do so? Did he overstep the mark? The answer to the first is unclear. The answer to the second is that May thinks he did and he thinks he did not.

Out of this familiar muddle comes the familiar response: blame the Home Secretary. This usually follows a period in which the vilified Home Secretary has been spoken of as a future leader, unconvincingly in the case of May, but an added twist that highlights the strange oscillating ride of a cabinet minister compared with the steady security of their senior civil servants. The exhortation often leads to the departure of the relevant minister and yet nothing changes as a result. Instead the original crisis is forgotten immediately after the cathartic dismissal. What did happen to those foreign prisoners that disappeared under Charles Clarke's watch? Who was directly responsible? Clarke could not have spent his entire time keeping tabs on these elusive convicts. Similarly, ministers cannot spend their nights travelling around Britain's jails to make sure a prisoner does not escape, and Theresa May could not head for the various border checks each day to ensure what she wanted to happen was happening.

The culture of blaming ministers automatically when the evidence points to a more complex picture is based on a false assumption of mighty ministerial omnipotence. The opposite is much closer to the truth. On Andrew Neil's late night BBC show last week there was an illuminating exchange about drive and ambition. Neil asked Michael Portillo whether as a minister it was power that had got him up in the mornings. Without hesitation, Portillo replied that he had no power. He explained that power was "too diffuse" for him to get satisfaction from wielding any. Alastair Campbell agreed, citing the powerless G20 leaders, supposedly the most powerful people in the world. I wish this brilliant discussion had been allowed to breathe as it raises a thousand issues. Still the point was briefly made.

In reality, most ministers are not powerful and do not stay in their posts for very long. Senior officials have the power of tenure and the protection of near anonymity. May is being questioned seemingly around the clock at the moment. Clark will not give his side of the story for a few more days. At least he is doing so, and by the sounds of things will do so robustly. Mostly we know nothing about these mighty figures who pull levers behind the scenes.

Accountability must widen much further across government to include senior officials. The lines of responsibility must be absolutely clear so there is no space for the cock-ups over border controls, and a thousand other similar displays of incompetence. On this point, David Cameron should take special note. He is about to create a mighty quango to run the NHS. Who will be responsible when something goes wrong? The lines of responsibility are even less clear in what he plans for the health system than in the case of border controls. The lack of clarity across government will remain if the issue becomes solely about the fate of the latest here today, gone tomorrow Home Secretary.

If May has lied or is directly responsible for the minor shambles this summer, she must go and will do so. I doubt if that will be proven or that she was. Her responsibility is for policy, the police cuts, the ill-thought through plans for elected police commissioners, the policy for border controls and all the rest. If these prove to be calamitous, and I bet she is worried about some of them, she and her government are accountable alone. The delivery of policy is a different matter altogether. Unless we learn the lessons, there will be more chaos across government whether Theresa May stays or goes.;

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