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Is Theresa May's luck finally running out?

After the loss of her special adviser, the Home Secretary is now under attack over a huge backlog of passport appplications.

After the loss of her special adviser, the Home Secretary is now under attack over a huge backlog of passport appplications.
Theresa May is interviewed after addressing The College of Policing Conference on October 24, 2013 in Bramshill. Photograph: Getty Images.

One of the most impressive things about Theresa May's ascent is that she has been Home Secretary throughout this period. The department known as the graveyard of ministers is traditionally one of the least promising berths for a leadership hopeful. But while New Labour got through four home secretaries in four years, May will this month become the longest-serving holder of the post since Rab Butler more than 50 years ago.

Yet this achievement has at least as much to do with luck as it does with  judgement. As Richard Morris previously noted on The Staggers, May's reputation as "a safe pair of hands" is a flat-out myth. There was the time she was forced to admit that "we will never know how many people entered the UK who should have been prevented from doing so", and the time she wrongly claimed that an illegal immigrant was able to avoid deportation due to owning a cat, not to mention the botched police commissioner elections and the "go home" vans. Yes, crime has fallen, but that is a decades-long trend that May can take little personal credit for (that she has done, and has protected her "safe hands" image is a tribute to her political operation).

In the twilight of the parliament, however, there are signs that her luck is finally running out. After already being humbled by the forced resignation of her special adviser Fiona Cunningham, she now finds herself fighting on another front. After the government denied reports of a huge backlog of passport applications (with MPs receiving hundreds of complaints from constituents), a photograph was leaked to the Guardian appearing to confirm the reverse. It shows hundreds of files, stuffed with applications, being held in a room usually reserved for meetings.

The PCS union says that there are 500,000 cases waiting to be processed and blames job cuts and office closures. General secretary Mark Serwotka warns: "There are clearly very major problems in the Passport Office and there are simply not enough staff to cope with the applications that are coming in."

The defence offered by May and Paul Pugh, the interim chief executive of the Passport Office, is that the service is experiencing "unprecedented" demand due to the economic recovery and a rise in holiday bookings. They insist that 97 per cent of applications have been processed within the three-week target. But even if true, that will be little consolation to the 3 per cent left waiting. Shadow immigration minister David Hanson notes: "Even according to the government's own statistics, 90,000 passport cases haven't been dealt with on time this year, so there is simply overwhelming evidence that families across the country are suffering needless stress, anxiety and problems simply because of mismanagement at the Home Offfice."

The immediate pressure has fallen on Pugh, who has been ordered to appear before the home affairs select committee next week and advised to make a "graceful exit" by Geoffrey Robinson. But May is under fire too. In the Commons yesterday, Yvette Cooper rebuked her for "taking her eye off the ball" and spoke of people "in a state of panic" about whether they would be able to go on foreign holidays or business trips.

As May will know, the Tories are at their most vulnerable when they are being attacked for incompetence, rather than wickedness. Should she fail to demonstrate sufficient "grip", her forward march could be permanently halted.