Here’s a trick question: which Home Secretary has been subject to hostile briefings from within the department that they are too Right-wing, too populist, too lazy, too stupid and a bully?
It’s a trick because the answer is: almost all of them. You can pretty much take your choice from any of those who have arrived at the Home Office with a definable agenda, and one that differs from the received Home Office wisdom.
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The briefings currently being meted out against Priti Patel are certainly severe. She has been accused of creating an “atmosphere of fear” by officials, an allegation strongly denied by ministers. But in the sweep of recent political history, they are entirely normal. The Home Office has always played dirty when a minister attempts to overturn its shibboleths. The moment its mandarins sniff trouble, stories start appearing in the press about how the new minister is out of his or her depth, unthinking, posturing and — always the same — a variation on stupid.
David Waddington is barely remembered today, but during Margaret Thatcher’s final 13 months as Prime Minister he was Home Secretary. For most of her time she had relatively liberal and traditional figures in that role but Waddington was anything but; he even supported the death penalty.
As a result, for 13 months he was subject to a non-stop campaign of denigration, almost certainly emanating from officials, horrified at having a boss who did not share their ingrained liberalism. His Guardian obituary damned him with the faint praise of being “not relentlessly illiberal”.
After Waddington was moved by John Major, the appointment of more congenial Home Secretaries in the form of Kenneth Baker and Kenneth Clarke meant that officials could return to the traditional department policies of attempting to mitigate failure. But when Michael Howard was appointed in 1993, all hell broke loose. Howard had what was, to his officials, the bizarre idea that the department’s role was not to cope with rising crime but to reduce it. Worse, he believed — as he famously put it — that “prison works”.
Colin Talbot, Professor of Government at Manchester University, has written of speaking to “a senior Home Office official”, in his office, when Howard was Home Secretary. He had a whiteboard in his office divided into columns for days of the week, and each column had ticks in it. I asked what it was for. “It’s my Michael Howard panic-o-meter,” he said. “I put a tick in every day I get a panic call from his private office about some story in the press.” But why, I asked? “I’m trying to work out which days I should make sure I’m out of the office,” he replied.
Cowardly and vicious is not the most enchanting of combinations in a body of officials, it’s fair to say, and most of Howard’s successors have had their fall outs.
Amber Rudd just recently launched an attack on Sir Philip Rutnam, the current permanent secretary with whom Ms Patel is reported to have had a disagreement.
Ms Rudd filed a format complaint against Sir Philip for being “absent” during the revelations over the Windrush scandal which forced her resignation in 2018. According to a leak in The Times on Monday, the report into the affair quotes her blaming him for her subsequent departure: “I find his absence inappropriate. He was absent through my final few weeks and days. I think a good permanent secretary would lean in to a real difficulty like this rather than sit back from it.” Asked if he was supportive, she said: “No, not really.”
Michael Howard was a skilled operator, so he survived the onslaught in the press that greeted his appointment. But the Home Office is not merely vicious when it comes across a minister who threatens serious change — it is also so unwieldy that one of the biggest tests facing a minister who refuses to be the poodle of his or her officials is working out and utilising the political skills need to survive.
The list of the Home Office’s responsibilities is ludicrously large, including: illegal drug use; alcohol strategy, policy and licensing conditions; terrorism; crime; public safety; border control; immigration; applications to enter and stay in the UK; issuing passports and visas; policing; fire prevention; fire rescue. In addition it is responsible for more than 30 agencies and public bodies.
John Reid infamously described its immigration department as “not fit for purpose”, and that quote has often been — understandably — misapplied to the Home Office as a whole.
The likes of Michael Howard and David Blunkett, who became Home Secretary in 2001, were political heavyweights with enough nous to get a grip of the hostile department. In preparing my biography of Blunkett, I spent months in and out of the Home Office when he was running the department, observing and speaking to officials — some who were supportive of their boss but others who clearly regarded him as an irritant.
One adviser to Blunkett recalls that the feeling was mutual. Blunkett wanted to replace the senior civil servants from top to bottom, and he and his aides were shocked at just how chaotic and inefficient the department was. “Nothing had prepared us for it,” recalled one adviser. ”It was worse than any of us had imagined possible. God alone knows what Jack [Straw] did for four years. I am simply unable to comprehend how he could have left it as it was. At least Howard had the alibi that he was attempting a wholesale culture shift. In the Home Office, doing nothing means going backwards. It was a mess. A giant mess.”
But there was only so much change Blunkett could manage without producing a backlash. John Gieve, the Permanent Secretary on his arrival, was a typically smooth Whitehall mandarin. But although Blunkett regarded Gieve in a dim light, the politician was a past master at picking fights where necessary and backing off when appropriate. Replacing Gieve, well liked by other permanent secretaries and by the Cabinet Secretary, would have been a bridge too far. Reorganising the department was one thing; political suicide quite another.
So rather than replace, he added, with people persuaded by Blunkett “that their future and not just mine is dependent on change. Because otherwise they just see us off because we come and go”.
As a fellow minister put it to me: “It was a very difficult line to tread. These people can do you in. David was mindful of that. He felt, ‘If I try and have too much of a clear-out of people who aren’t doing enough, then they can bring me tumbling down quite easily.’ So he acted to strengthen the existing structures rather than to have more of a clean sweep.”
This is a lesson Priti Patel may wish to learn.
Blunkett told me that problems with the Home Office were in the DNA of its civil servants. “The people inside the Home Office didn’t believe that we would do what we said. And they had a policy of their own. I’ve never experienced anything quite like the first few months here. We were running parallel policies. There were my policies and there was what officials called ‘Home Office policy’, and that was what they worked to. I had to say to them over and over again, ‘There is only one policy and it’s what we say it is.'”
This was nearly 20 years ago. Since then Home Secretaries have come and gone. One — Theresa May — was there for longer than any other in modern political history. And yet it is still the same story, and once again a Home Secretary is at war with her senior officials. The biggest test for Priti Patel, even before the huge issues of immigration or terrorism, will be whether she has the necessary skills to take on the department.