The government ends what has been a truly dismal week with a row over whether or not Theresa May supported ‘go home’ vans and reports that Amber Rudd privately boasted to the prime minister that she would give immigration officials greater ‘teeth’ to accelerate the UK’s deportation programme.
There is much frustration in No 10 over how this week has played out. Despite winning all Commons votes on Syria and the much-anticipated Commonwealth celebrations, what was supposed to fly the flag for global Britain has manifested into a row over hostile environments and anti-immigration rhetoric with the Windrush scandal.
Part of the difficulty is that No 10 are struggling to blame the Home Office for the debacle given that a lot of the decisions being enacted were made when Theresa May was Home Secretary. Meanwhile, Amber Rudd finds herself in a near impossible situation – unable to really defend herself as to do so would be to blame her predecessor – aka her current boss.
As I say in the i paper this week, as May’s hand-picked Home Secretary, Rudd sees it as her job to implement and defend May’s policies. Just as Rudd has found herself in the line of fire this week, she also received flak for the consequences of May’s decision to attack the police’s use of stop and search. Or take the Home Secretary’s speech at the 2016 Conservative party conference – her first as Home Secretary under May – when she struck such a hard line calling for tougher rules on foreign workers that her speech was reported as a ‘hate incident’ to West Midlands Police. Allies barely recognised the woman on stage.
Those same allies are growing frustrated with Rudd’s obedience to No 10. Behind closed doors, Rudd is a leading light on the liberal conservative wing – and widely touted as the Cameron candidate in the next leadership contest. Yet with May as her boss, Rudd repeatedly puts her true politics aside to toe the Government line. This approach might have been understandable, if not praiseworthy, when May was all powerful and accompanied by her two uber-aggressive chiefs of staff, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, who had been with May in the Home Office.
But with May’s authority much diminished after the election, Rudd could have taken the opportunity to give the Home Office her own lick of paint. Rudd supporters point to ministers like Jeremy Hunt, Gavin Williamson and Michael Gove who have managed to make their own mark on their departments – often by taking advantage of May’s reduced authority and rebelling.
In that vein, Rudd could have become the voice for the kind of sensible, liberal immigration policies that she genuinely believes in. If Rudd needs inspiration, just look at how Jeremy Hunt is behaving as Health Secretary after his refusal to move in the reshuffle has seen his department expanded and extra money promised for it. Rudd’s allies suggest that she adopt the same kind of approach. Continuing on May’s path has not only created problems on a day-to-day basis but put a dampener on any plans to pitch herself as the leadership candidate of the party’s liberal wing when May goes. Incidents such as Windrush will be remembered by MPs – and the public.
This is why Rudd must carry some blame, too, for recent events. She once likened working under May to buying a house with a rather protective former owner who can’t quite let go:
‘It’s like when you’ve sold a house and you meet the new owner and you say, ‘Oh but you’ve turned the blue room red. Did you think that was a good idea?’
But Rudd can paint the living room whatever colour she likes, she just needs to summon the courage to do so.