It’s hard not to feel a little sympathy for Amber Rudd. She was the lighting rod of the Windrush scandal, having inherited a deeply dysfunctional department from her predecessor, Theresa May. The “hostile environment” policy that led to the shameful Windrush debacle was developed under Mrs May, as was the situation where even senior Home Office officials didn’t know what going on. But as Mrs May herself said in 2004 when calling for the resignation of Labour ministers over an immigration debacle, ignorance is no excuse. Blaming others won’t cut it. Had Rudd handled herself brilliantly during this crisis, she would have survived it – perhaps even enhanced her reputation. But she messed up. “I bitterly, deeply regret that I didn’t see [Windrush] as more than individual cases that had gone wrong that needed addressing,” she said. “I didn’t see it as a systemic issue until very recently.” In which case, she was being very badly advised by her officials. Which is why she ended up denying knowledge of deportation targets, when in fact she’d written (or, at least, signed) a memo to Theresa May about them in January last year. The the memo came to light this afternoon gives the lie to the myth that civil servants don’t do any work in Sundays. It showed that she had misled parliament and she has walked the plank as a result.
But much of this can be traced back not to bungling by any minister but the accidental target of cutting immigration to the “tens of thousands”. A phrase blurted out by mistake on a TV sofa one day by Damian Green, then immigration spokesman, which then became Tory policy. As Home Secretary, Theresa May wanted to keep this target because she felt it was better than nothing and that a fixed numerical target would focus civil servant minds in her department. She was right about that.
Focusing on this target led to Windrush. It’s a target that that Amber Rudd wanted to abolish on her first day as Home Secretary; most Cabinet members know is unachievable. Ms Rudd was not the problem here: it was the way a daft target was followed in a robotic way that ended up with officials seeing an uncaring hardline response as a virtue. Which is what Mrs May intended, but officials went too far. And if something goes too far in the Home Office, ministers tend to find out via the newspapers rather than an early warning system at work. That’s because the senior civil servants are too often ignorant about what’s going on.
The Tories have a lot of making up to do over Windrush. The net migration target has to go, and a whole new way of handling immigration needs to take its place.