Jacqui Smith: a question of courage?

Why do Labour Home Office ministers stumble so badly when they attempt to deal with immigration? Bec

The serialisation of Gordon Brown's latest book, Wartime Courage, has gone largely unnoticed. But in the week running up to Remembrance Sunday, the Daily Telegraph ran extracts of the Prime Minister's latest tribute to individual heroism, which followed two previous volumes on celebrated men and women of courage and everyday heroes. The extracts suggest that the new book, due for publication in April of next year, is a surprisingly good read. Brown is plainly moved by the Second World War bomb disposal experts, secret service operatives and ordinary soldiers whose exploits he describes.

It is said that Gordon Brown became so obsessed with these stories of personal courage that senior members of the defence staff and the intelligence services would bring him new snippets of information, or be asked by Brown to open files to confirm facts on the people concerned. As the extracts show, the stories in Wartime Courage are peppered with references to these military and intelligence documents.

But where lie the roots of this obsession? I am told that Brown became fascinated by how people perform under fire and, in particular, how they kept their head when entering enemy territory.

I kept thinking of the book extracts when I watched Jacqui Smith under persistent Tory fire after her parliamentary statement this week on how much she knew about people working illegally in this country as security guards, and when she knew it. It made me wonder why Labour Home Office ministers fare so badly when entering the enemy territory represented by the immigration debate in this country.

One by one they have been shot down by David Davis, who simply waits for them to move into his sights on the immigration battlefield before picking them off. The first was Beverley Hughes, the immigration minister who resigned in April 2004 after she claimed not to have known about a visa scam involving fraudulent claims from eastern Europe. It later turned out that she had been warned a year previously. Her demise was followed, in December of the same year, by that of her mentor, David Blunkett, after he was linked to the speeding up of a visa for his lover's nanny. The episode also revealed systematic failings at the Immigration and Nationality Directorate at the Home Office.

Blunkett's successor, Charles Clarke, fared no better when, in May 2004, he was forced out after it was revealed that more than 1,000 foreign prisoners had been released without being deported. The final straw came when the New Statesman revealed that one of the offenders concerned went on to become a suspect in a high-profile terrorist case.

We are talking here about new Labour's crack troops, not fresh-faced new recruits, and yet in three-and-a-half long years they have been shown to be woefully ill-equipped and poorly trained to deal with a firmly entrenched enemy, sure of its ground. So why is it that Labour politicians stumble so haplessly when they attempt to deal with this issue?

I believe there are three main reasons. The first is that the department responsible for dealing with immigration at the Home Office remains one of the most dysfunctional in the whole of Whitehall. John Reid knew this when he split the Home Office in two, but the restructuring, while it may have highlighted the problem, has not yet brought the reform necessary to solve it. A second and connected issue is the disloyalty of immigration officials to the government. David Blunkett's troubles began when an ideologically-driven mole began leaking information. Ministers believe a similar process was at work in the recent leaks to the Daily Mail of emails showing how early Jacqui Smith was made aware of the problem over security guards. They are convinced that they went to the Tory party first, and I have certainly heard senior Tories boast that they have had Home Office officials falling over themselves to provide them with information.

Distasteful work

But third and most importantly, Labour ministers still feel deeply uncomfortable with the immigration issue and, in many cases, quite rightly so. No Labour politician goes into parliament because of a burning desire to deport asylum-seekers or kick illegal workers out of their jobs. This is distasteful work, and despite ten years of tough-talking rhetoric I don't believe even David Blunkett, Labour's most authoritarian home secretary, was happy dealing with immigration policy. For this reason alone, Labour will always be outflanked by a party which feels passionately about it.

Jacqui Smith, therefore, has good reason to be concerned. There is a growing frustration within the Labour government that no real progress has been made at the Home Office since Gordon Brown became Prime Minister. Although new initiatives have been launched by Ed Balls at the Department for Children, Schools and Welfare, for example, and by Peter Hain at the Department for Work and Pensions, Smith has been hamstrung by a department that still seems, in the words of her predecessor, "not fit for purpose". At the time of writing, Smith herself is not being held responsible and her stock remains high because of her handling of the failed terrorist attacks in June. Her offence at this point is unclear. She certainly held back information from the public, but it isn't clear whether she did so to stop illegal immigrants going on the run, or to bury bad news. Either way, one more leak of a misjudged email and she could yet find herself in no-man's-land, just another victim of David Davis's sniper fire.

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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