Sajid Javid, as the new home secretary, has both a harder task than his predecessor and a much easier one. But the sudden exit of Amber Rudd from the Home Office has raised questions about both the achievability of policy and about accountability.
Take the accountability questions first. There is a lot of agreement that she was right to resign. There was no single overwhelming factor but a trio combined to make the decision all but inevitable. She had “inadvertently” misled a select committee about the existence of targets (although she went back to correct this the next day). She had written a letter to the prime minister mentioning targets (although it was oddly phrased, with no clear time mentioned for achieving them).
Most serious, perhaps, she had repeatedly declared that she was unaware of the use of targets in the department’s management. Yet, after days of this, in her resignation letter she said that she recognised she should have been aware. That points to a busy weekend for her and her officials, who presumably confronted her with evidence from emails and papers to that end.
There is a legitimate sense in which management targets are different from a publicly announced target of government policy. But that distinction is never going to play well in politics. As a politician, she should have been alert to the rising heat over Windrush. So her decision to go is not a surprise.
The course of events raises other questions, though. The first is about the role of her officials. It is clear she was poorly briefed going into the select committee. The line she took was risky given the committee’s earlier discussions – something she could not have followed but her officials could have done. Even more, it was at odds with the thrust and tone of departmental policy. She should not have been allowed to take it, or to sustain it. It would be healthy to hear more – including from officials – about how this happened. The select committee may indeed oblige.
Then there was the precision of the leaking against her. When she made a statement, an internal departmental document indicating the opposite promptly pitched up in the national media. Some have said that this, if carried out by someone or several people in the department, is justified under the principle of protecting whistleblowers. Others have pointed to the way that as the Windrush row grew, she appeared to blame officials for the way the department had pursued deportation.
There is some weight to each point – but not enough to clinch the argument. Whistleblowing performs an important public service – but sequential, instant leaks against a minister don’t fit easily under the term. It was unfair of her to imply that officials were to blame for the culture that had grown up meaning that, in her words, the department “sometimes loses sight of the individual”. She was not wrong in her description of the tone in which policy was carried out, though – just in the implication of where overall responsibility should lie.
There lies the heart of the problem. The pursuit of targets for net migration that were never easily achievable was set as long ago as the 2010 Conservative manifesto – and repeated in the 2015 and 2017 manifestos. That is the kind of climate which makes targets both pursued and denied.
What is more, they were very much associated with Theresa May in her period as home secretary. There is a palpable nervousness in Whitehall, among officials and politicians, about changing policies associated with the prime minister in her previous role. It appears that Amber Rudd pledged to continue them.
Sajid Javid, arriving after this upheaval, has more of a chance to make a fresh start. He should examine again what immigration policies – and deportation tactics – would best serve the country. It would help as part of this if more light was shed on the way the Home Office has handled its past goals.