Whitehall: John Reid's no-win quick-win situation

Soon after he became Home Secretary, John Reid met the heads of all the directorates and departments of the Home Office. His predecessor Charles Clarke had been forced to resign because of a basic bureaucratic failure to manage foreign prisoners. David Davis, the Conservative home affairs spokesman, and just about everyone else was telling him he needed to take the time to master his brief, work out what had gone wrong and put it right.

There was no chance of that. Reid told the senior civil servants that he wanted "quick wins" - his version of Tony Blair's "eye-catching initiatives". Quick wins followed by the truckload. The Home Office bombarded the media with initiatives such as the plan for uniformed border control officers to patrol ports and airports. It was a quick win because it sounded like the Conservatives' proposal to set up a national border control force to address public fears about uncontrolled immigration, terrorism and organised crime. Few noticed that it was nothing of the sort: just the same old immigration officers in new clothes. Four days before that, we had Reid's grandly titled paper Rebalancing the Criminal Justice System In Favour of the Law-Abiding Majority. This, too, was a quick win because the words "tough" or "tougher" were used 34 times, and, just in case you were wondering, Reid was not reiterating Tony Blair's promise to be "tough on the causes of crime". That was mentioned just once. In all other instances, Reid wanted to be seen to be tough on crime itself.

If this sounds like the familiar story of the Home Office rushing out policies so that ministers can sound like Judge Dread, there is an element of that. One senior civil servant told me that a part of the explanation for the shambles in his department was the "absolutely unrelenting pressure" for "top-grade people to spend a vast amount of their time pushing out initiatives". But a lot of what Reid is producing isn't empty bombast. A restructuring of the Immigration and Nationality Department is planned. Violent offenders will serve longer sentences and their automatic discounts for guilty pleas will be removed. Reid's critics, such as Harry Fletcher of the probation officers' union, point out that Reid is tearing up a system that Labour itself introduced in 2003, and wonders where on earth Reid is going to house his prisoners. Nevertheless, Fletcher doesn't doubt that there are substantive changes on the way as well as window-dressing.

But here is what is odd. The civil servants who are meant to make their new master look tough and decisive have had their legs hacked from underneath them by Reid. No politician in British history has produced anything like his assault on the Immigration and Nationality Department. It was "not fit for purpose," he roared to MPs, "inadequate in scope, technology, leadership, management, systems and processes". The former communist wasn't criticising a negligent official who deserved to be fired. Like a commissar demanding a purge, Reid launched his attack on everyone who was working for him.

If you think that I am being too kind to feather-bedded bureaucrats, consider this: you never hear private sector managers talking like that. Even when they take over an ailing rival, even when they are planning redundancies, they never say that all their employees are unfit for purpose, for the very simple reason that the good ones they want to keep will go if they do.

The Home Office civil servants might take the abuse on the chin if they thought Reid was right. His difficulty is that they don't. Crime is down by almost 50 per cent from its high point in the early Nineties. The immigration and asylum system was indeed "not fit for purpose" - in 2000. (Siemens had sweet-talked the Home Office into buying a computer system so efficient that immigration case officers could be done away with. The Home Office duly fired experienced staff, only to find that its marvellous new computers didn't work.) The backlog of 300,000 cases has been slowly cleared, however. The department is far from perfect, but it is on the mend. Or rather, it was. The danger for Reid is that the good people will go and the rest will turn surly and go on "internal strike", as they used to say in the Soviet Union he once admired.

Davis senses a quick win of his own. He advertised recently for researchers to find ammunition to use against Reid and to handle leaks from disgruntled staff. "I got a significant number of applications from Home Office civil servants," he told me, with a barely concealed "whoopee!" in his voice.